Court Web Site Guidelines – Principles 4, 5 and 6 (Notification, Content, Security)

Earlier this week, I presented the CCCT IntellAction Working Group selection of principles that should guide the design and organization of court web sites. In this post, I further explain the next three principles:

  • Principle #4: Notification
  • Principle #5: Content Organization & Search
  • Principle #6: Security

Comments and suggestions are welcome!

Principle #4: Notification

The option of subscribing to content (or notification of new content) is often an expected web site feature. This is typically achieved by offering one or several RSS feeds, one or several email subscriptions or, ideally, offering both RSS feeds and email-based subscriptions.

Each court web site audience should be provided with recommended notification channels, thereby increasing the likelihood of the court web site becoming truly interactive.

Selected taxonomy terms (see below, Principle #5: Content Organization & Search) should have their own page on the site, RSS feed and email-based subscription.

Notification further empowers web site stakeholders.

Principle #5: Content Organization & Search

There are three methods to organize content on a web site. All three methods should be used for court web sites:

  • Menu Navigation. First and foremost, menu navigation should be tested by users (User Acceptance Testing – UAT) and relentlessly optimized, because it is the primary means of accessing content for web site visitors
  • Taxonomies. Taxonomies are terms (or categories) controlled by web site administrators to classify and organize content. Only web site administrators can create and update such terms. These terms, often called categories on web sites, are displayed along content and can usually be clicked on to get to all content belonging to the same category
  • Free Tagging. Free tagging (also called “Social Tagging”) allows creators of content to assign terms on-the-fly to their own content and/or to existing content. By contrast to taxonomies, which only allow the addition of categories or keywords taken from controlled vocabularies; social tagging allows any terms to be added to content. This is useful because each person is bound to tag the same content differently depending on their preferences. Allowing free tagging further empowers web site users to retrieve content based on their own keywords

When it comes to searching for content, web sites greatly vary in the effectiveness of their search engine. Some do not offer any search capabilities, others offer a basic keywords search or a full text search, others go as far as providing sophisticated Natural Language Search capabilities for unstructured searches.

In the interest of Principle #10: Viability (especially cost-effectiveness) and Principle #11: Simplicity, these guidelines recommend that court web sites provide full text faceted search, but not Natural Language Search capabilities. Faceted search means that users can restrict search results to pre-defined information categories. Natural Language Search capabilities are more effective, but are significantly (by several orders of magnitude) more expensive to implement. Courts are not in the business of providing sophisticated information search capabilities, this is a field occupied by commercial law publishers and other public entities.

Principle #6: Security

Security has three components:

  • Confidentiality
  • Integrity
  • Availability

In terms of confidentiality, court web sites should be designed in a way that confidential information is adequately protected from unauthorized access. The best method of ensuring confidentiality is always not to put confidential information on the site, whenever this is possible. When the need to put confidential information on the site is unavoidable, because it must be made available to defined user groups (lawyers for example), then an appropriate security audit and security testing should be conducted to evaluate the security risks, and such risks should be formally accepted by senior management. What is and is not confidential information, for the purpose of information published on a court web site, is a topic specifically addressed under the current guidelines.

Integrity ensures that information published on the web site cannot be changed without proper authorization, for example, a user changing the text of a court decision published on the site. In this area there are various ways to achieve this goal, ranging from basic user group permissions to sophisticated public/private key systems (PKI). When it comes to information published on the web site, the only information warranting a higher integrity requirement are court decisions and case information. Until such time as a PKI infrastructure with a centralized approved certificate authority has been chosen by and for Canadian courts, the only viable option is to design the court web site and court decision publishing workflow in a way to minimize risks of tampering with court decisions.

Finally, availability is a measure of the uptime to downtime ratio of the site and of the effectiveness and efficiency of backup/restoral services. A robust site hosted on a reliable platform, architecture and hosting provider will provide higher availability to users of the court web site. As a minimum, courts need to turn their attention to the topic of availability and ensure the site is architected in a way to provide high availability to users.

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