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?
(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)