Court Forms: Should They be Eliminated?

 

Court forms are confusing. They are difficult to fill in and contain legal jargon. Even worst, the guides for court forms can be hard to follow. Especially, if you do not have a strong grasp of English or an understanding of the court system.

I have personally witnessed numerous people struggle with court forms, both while waiting to file a court document and while volunteering at a legal clinic.  In the article “Literacy Requirements of Court Documents: An Underexplored Barrier to Access to Justice“, Professor Amy Salzyn, et al., write about the difficulties in navigating court forms. For example, some forms indicate “no.” in place of the word number. Other forms refer to “pre-judgment interest”, without providing an explanation for what “pre-judgment interest” means. Even using the word “plaintiff”, without an explanation, can be confusing.

What is the solution?

Most court forms should be eliminated. Instead, the government should remove forms that are essentially duplicates of each other and leaving only the most necessary forms. The remaining forms should be designed with accessibility and the user in mind.

When designing for the user, we should consider the best format. Perhaps the best format is a fillable online form. The user could be asked questions online, and then the answers could be used to generate the court forms. The questions could be asked in writing or by video. For originating claims, questions should be asked to ensure that the form is being filed in the right jurisdiction.

Guides for completing the forms should be available in multiple formats, from written formats to videos to infographics. The guides should be simple. Less words, the better.

Common types of claims should have examples online for people to follow. The forms should also contain links to legislation so people know that they are referencing the right laws and can read the laws.

After the forms are completed, people should be directed to videos and written guides explaining the next steps. People should be able to book court appearances online. There should be an easy portal to follow.

Eventually each case, should have its own electronic file. Where litigants and judges can access the pleadings, motions, and court decisions for each case.

Unfortunately, in Ontario there has been little success in creating electronic filing or better court forms. But how much longer can our court system rely exclusively on paper and retain the confidence of the public?

(Originally posted on slaw.caViews are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)

 

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Court Forms: Confusing by Design

Plaintiff-Form

You name it, there is probably a court form for it. A form for service. A form for requisitioning something. A form for confirming something. A form for costs. A form for a back page. And so on. Navigating these forms requires experience and ideally a law degree. But the increasing numbers of self-represented litigants means that our forms need to be examined. They need to be user friendly.

I have watched countless self-represented litigants struggle with understanding court forms and court processes. All the while, watching government clerks guide them through these forms. And who can blame the self-represented litigants? Does it make sense that you get the forms online, fill them in, then file the form in-person? Does it make sense that the forms do not include rules about service? Does it make sense that the way lawyers count days in Ontario is different than the way everybody else counts a day? Does it make sense that sending someone a document after 4pm equals service on the following day? Does it make sense that serving someone by email is a pain in the a**?  Does it make sense that you go to court to book a date with the court?

But the longer I interact with the system, the less absurd it looks to me. I become more and more desensitized to the structure. I become used to the confusing design of it all. Instead, it begins to look normal. Of course, you don’t count a holiday. Of course, you fax it. Of course, you file it in person. Of course, you need to have the original (even though the whole document was created electronically). Of course it takes years to resolve your claim.

But how does our court system maintain its legitimacy if it remains out of date. If it continues to cling on to paper? If it continues to communicate in legalese? If it continues to process cases slowly? If it puts civil cases on the back burner? If it continues to go on like the Internet is some kind of phase, like a moody teenager.

Why do we think that treating our courts “like some kind of fossilized Jurassic Park will enable them to continue to provide a most needed service to the public in a way the public respects? How many wake-up calls do the legal profession and the court system need before both look around and discover that they have become irrelevant museum pieces?” (Bank of Montreal v Faibish, 2014 ONSC 2178)

Luckily, it appears that our government is beginning to change things. The Ministry of the Attorney General will be launching an e-filing service in five locations on April 24, 2017.

The Ontario Bar Association announced that “Phase 1 of the service will enable e-filing of the documents required to initiate a civil action in the Superior Court of Justice, auto-issuance of statements of claim and notices of action, and online payment. The pilot will be launched in Brampton, Ottawa, London, Newmarket and Sudbury, with a province-wide rollout to commence later in the year. The second phase of the service will be introduced shortly after the full rollout of phase 1, and will enable the e-filing of additional document types.”

I eagerly await these changes. I hope that the electronic filing assists users with the confusing rules about service. Ideally by incorporating prompts about service in its design and prompts about other rules (like adding a party).

(This is not a sponsored post. Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)