What Principles Should Guide the Design of Court Web Sites?

Back in January, I announced the formation of a working group under the auspices of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology (CCCT). The objective of this working group was to draft guidelines facilitating the modernization of Canadian court web sites. Since that time, we have made progress and expect to have finished a first draft of the Court Web Site guidelines before the upcoming Canadian Forum on Court Technology.

One of the five parts of the guidelines is titled “PrinciplesCutting Through Context and Issues: What Principles Should Guide the Design of Court Web Sites?

In this post I’d like to expose the principles we selected. Your comments and feedback are welcome:

  • Principle #1: The Right Information for Specific Audiences
  • Principle #2: Empowerment
  • Principle #3: Timeliness
  • Principle #4: Notification
  • Principle #5: Content Organization & Search
  • Principle #6: Security
  • Principle #7: Bilinguism
  • Principle #8: Accessibility
  • Principle #9: Interactivity
  • Principle #10: Viability
  • Principle #11: Simplicity

The first three principles are explained, below. The other principles will be explained in upcoming posts.

Principle #1: The Right Information for Specific Audiences

Users that come to a court web site generally fall under the following categories:

  • Members of the Public
  • Journalists
  • Self-represented Litigants
  • Practitioners: Lawyers, Paralegals, Stenographers, Translators, etc.
  • Researchers: Law Professors, Law Librarians, Law Students
  • Commercial Law Publishers
  • Government (Public Servants)
  • Staff (employees and judges of the court)

Each audience has its own information needs and expectations. Being able to find the right information means that courts should make a effort, under the current guidelines, to specifically cater to each audience according to a “cost / benefit” analysis.

This analysis is necessary, because it is impossible to meet the entire range of all information needs by all audiences. As a result, the following information scope elements should be clearly defined upfront: what audience will be served under a thematic access, and what each thematic access will provide. It is understood that some expectations for some audiences will not be met by court web sites, particularly when these expectations are met by other content providers. On the other hand, content uniquely authored by the court should be available on the court web site, for example, court decisions.

A majority of Canadian courts do not publish their decisions on their web site, in part due to the fact that court decisions are routinely screened, commented upon in the form of headnotes and made available to members of the legal profession by commercial publishers. Commercial publishers will always have an important role to play when it comes to adding value to raw information produced by courts. For example, lawyers routinely rely on case headnotes and precedent analysis notes found in commercial databases that are sold on a subscription and/or per use basis. This added information is not produced by the court. Commercial publishers also use legal staff to screen decisions and make judgment calls on what decisions should be considered material of precedential value, and therefore be included in their databases.

While fully recognizing the important role that commercial law publishers play, courts are inherently well suited to issue their own decisions to the public in a timely manner, subject to privacy concerns, where applicable.

In addition to court decisions, there are several other types of information that ought to be found on a court web site:

  • Court Jurisdiction
  • Docket and Court Schedule Information
  • Case Information and Files
  • Rules of Practice and practice directives
  • Notices to the Legal Professions
  • Court News
  • Court Initiatives and Projects
  • Judges Biographies (past and current)
  • Self help guides for self-represented litigants
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) information
  • Court hours, location(s) and other contact information
  • Web Site Policies (Copyright, Privacy, Accessibility, etc.)
  • Court hours, phone numbers, and other contact information for key court personnel

Resources permitting, the following information should also be found on court web sites:

  • Court news (initiatives and projects)
  • Court forms
  • Court fees and fines
  • Annual reports of the court, if published
  • Frequently asked questions
  • Key documents (e.g. child support guidelines; sentencing guidelines)
  • Historical information about the court (creation, important historical moments, judges over time, pictures/locations of the court buildings and courtrooms
  • Educational materials
  • Topical reports, if published (e.g. inquests, commissions)

Principle #2: Empowerment

A key aspect of web 2.0 is the empowerment of the user. The user is in control of the information. Whereas a web site content author would previously have to have the content published through a web site developer, content authors can now publish their content on the web without any intermediaries. This leads to the notion of empowerment. Which stakeholders should be empowered?

Three types of stakeholders to any web site should be empowered:

  • Consumers: those who come to the web site in need of information
  • Creators: those who come to the web site to publish information, add comments, etc.
  • Custodians: those who make the web site available, apply security patches, ensure content backup and restoral services, etc.

The same individual can be a consumer and creator.

Empowering each classe of stakeholders means the following:

  • Consumers have several options at their disposal in how they want to experience the site –

    – They can register for an account on the site, self-identify with a user category and be presented with a home page customized for their user category
    – They are offered several content subscription options, either by RSS or email (at their choice), matching the content types they are interested in. For example, a lawyer might want to subscribe to content updates matching “Notices to the Legal Profession”, “Rules of Practice” and court decisions in a specific area of the law, but not to other content
    – They know what they can do and not do with the information (in terms of copyright). Ideally, information published on the court web site is put into the public domain or at least assigned a Creative Commons license in order to encourage the free flow of information published on the web site

  • Creators can easily –

    – create content matching their user category. For example, Judges and their assistants could create and publish new “Court decisions”, whereas other court staff could create other types of content
    – create content through an intuitive, friendly Graphical User Interface on the web site itself. There is no need to send the information to technical staff or intermediaries for the content to be published on the site
    – know what are the rules of the road and best practices when it comes to publishing information on the site. For example, under what circumstances should the names of the parties be stricken out of the decision? Who can authorize the issuance of a “Notice to the Legal Profession”? Creators of content must benefit from clear court guidance on when and how each type of content can be published on the site
    – provide feedback on web site usability and see that feedback acted upon

  • Custodians are those charged with the maintenance and technical operation of the web site. Empowering custodians means that they should –

    – have access to a competent, reliable and readily available 2nd and 3rd lines of support when they need to resolve technical issues beyond what they ordinarily deal with
    – be provided with a friendly Graphical User Interface to administer the web site
    – be provided with a modular framework, allowing them to add or remove features from the web site in a relatively painless way
    – have access to usability and technical information on the chosen platform to host the court web site
    – be provided with timely security patches to the web site platform

Layering the information is also another facet of web site user empowerment. Layering the information empowers the reader to dig deeply into a subject if they so choose. Layering information typically involves offering short snippets with a link, then longer pieces with a link, then perhaps the full detailed content. A big mistake of websites is to offer too much information at once – the counter to that is to allow the user to scan for information they are interested in, then “empower” them to delve into it more deeply.

Principle #3: Timeliness

Timeliness means reducing as much as possible the time between the following two moments:

  • when information is ready to be published on the site (e.g. a court decision is finalized)
  • the information is published on the web site

In practice, timeliness is achieved by identifying those who are responsible for finalizing each content type, and empowering them to publish the information directly on the site (without any intermediary).


  1. The website of the North Carolina Business http://www.ncbusinesscourt.net does almost everything you have listed. It has been in operation for 11 years.

  2. Why the focus on web sites when our courtroom operations themselves are so incredibly behind the times? My apologies if this has been discussed and I am changing the intended topic of this post.

    From a criminal perspective, we continue to require accused persons to appear before the court for administrative remands when the system, particularly for those with representation, could easily be moved to an electronic format (I addressed this specifically in my blog.There is still a requirement to file paper-heavy applications, along with casebooks, when it would be very easy to provide the judiciary and opposing counsel with electronic copies that could be used inside courtrooms. Transcripts still need to be picked-up in person when an online ordering and distribution system would make all parties’, reporters included, job easier. Disclosure is either provided on paper or in inefficient electronic format (pdf files on CDs, DVD movies, etc.) when a secure online system could streamline this whole process.

    Those are just a few examples. The changes just seem so obvious and not overly difficult to implement.

  3. Ben – thank you for the example. It’s good to see examples of courts that were ahead of the pack when it comes to their web site.

    Adam – your query is entirely valid and shared by most judges and lawyers that I know! But rest assured, although the focus of our IntellAction Working Group is Canadian court web sites, there are other IntellAction Working Groups, all spearheaded by the Canadian Centre for Court Technology (CCCT), that focus on other areas of technologies.

    The idea is for every working group to focus on a different aspect of court-related technology, whether in-court or “related to” the court.

    Hopefully the modernization ideas you’re alluding to will be discussed at the upcoming Canadian Forum on Court Technology, end of September, in Ottawa!