The Filing Fairness Project is an ambitious, multi-jurisdictional effort to simplify court filing processes and improve access to and the administration of justice by leveraging readily available technology.
Plain-language interview systems to gather information and generate complex forms exist for tax filings, mortgage applications, and benefits administration. Court filings have lagged behind these applications because of institutional history, inertia, and fragmentation, which makes individual-jurisdiction solutions cost-prohibitive. This is a solvable problem.
By partnering with several state court systems, the Project aims to establish the conditions necessary to encourage the development of sustainable, multistate online solutions. These solutions will provide user-driven, accessible efiling options for litigants navigating the legal system and, by extension, help improve the accuracy and relevance of court filings and increase access to justice. To ensure that these solutions are sustainable, courts must see benefits in the form of cost reduction and efficiency, and technology providers must be willing to make the necessary investments, both now and over time. The initial focus is on name change petitions, fee waiver requests, and eviction answers — filings where self-representation and related challenges are particularly pronounced.
The Filing Fairness Project is led by Mark Chandler, former Cisco Chief Legal Officer; Professor David Freeman Engstrom, Co-Director of Stanford’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession; Margaret Hagan, Director of the Stanford Legal Design Lab; and Mandy Mobley Li, Justice Innovation Lead at Stanford Law School. It is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ), and the Legal Services Corporation.
If you are a technology provider or court official interested in learning more about the Filing Fairness Project, we are eager to hear from you. Please reach out using this link.
The U.S. legal system is gripped by an access to justice crisis. Roughly three-quarters of filed civil cases feature a self-represented litigant (SRL) trying to navigate the legal system alone. The complexity of current forms and processes also slows down the work of understaffed legal aid organizations and other legal service providers. When a legal filing is required to vindicate rights, self-represented litigants are exposed to risks of injustice solely due to their unrepresented status. Many just give up and forfeit rights or see their filings rejected for non-conformance, burdening court clerks, or include legally irrelevant information, complicating the work of judges. The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to these problems and generated momentum among major institutions and stakeholders to address them.
The Filing Fairness Project was established in the fall of 2021 based on the idea that we can and must do better. Hatched as a Stanford Law School policy lab course, a research team drawn from law, computer science, business, and beyond conducted interviews with state supreme court justices, court technology specialists, access to justice experts, and other key stakeholders to map the civil justice landscape, particularly for case types demonstrating the highest rates of self-representation and legal aid support. The team also identified shared characteristics across legal filings in four key litigation arenas: eviction, collections, domestic violence restraining orders, and name change petitions. This research demonstrated the viability of a proposed multi-jurisdictional pilot project to bridge the justice gap and improve court efficiency by simplifying the collection and filing of legal data.
We see high value in a multi-jurisdictional collaboration because it combats key challenges — fragmentation, homegrown or ad hoc solutions, and a lack of sustainable investment — that have sometimes plagued prior efforts to use technology to improve access to justice.
The pilot comprises three Pillars — our high-level goals. As described further below, we believe that progress on these three pillars will ultimately help to enable scalable, multi-jurisdictional solutions that better serve self-represented litigants, legal aid organizations, and the courts themselves.
Common Fields Coordination: Litigants can make, and courts accept, submissions for Name Change, Eviction Answers, and/or Fee Waiver actions that utilize fields from the common fields list while also accommodating distinct state requirements.
Low-Burden Filing Protocols: Statewide filings can be made through online tools that meet agreed-upon criteria (including via informal systems, robust efiling protocols, or APIs); to enable those filings, courts reduce other manual administrative burdens for which electronic solutions exist.
Strategies to Encourage Sustainable Solutions: Courts certify and promote online tool(s) for civil litigants and, to the extent possible, facilitate certification standards that will ease entry for future providers and tools in other issue areas.
Pillar 1: Aligning common form fields & maintaining a cross-jurisdiction “data dictionary”
For any given form, some fields are common across jurisdictions, while others are unique to only one or two jurisdictions. Two strategies aim to align these fields more readily:
- For common fields, we aim to develop a single definition and output, agreed upon across states and committed to by jurisdictions.
- For unique fields, we aim to provide a standard format for updatable, consistently maintained state lists, and to streamline where reasonable and worthwhile.
The end goal of this pillar is a “data dictionary” of common fields in a format that jurisdictions will implement. Fields that are unique to each jurisdiction will be in a format that permits easy integration. This dictionary will have an accompanying protocol for maintaining reliability; agreed-upon standards that draw upon best practices; and a database structure that ensures accessibility and scalability.
Other groups have already established valuable infrastructure and document assembly pilots.
- The National Open Court Data Standards (NODS) has established data standards for court data, particularly the data saved in court case management systems. The Conference of State Court Administrators and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) established NODS.
- The OASIS LegalXML Electronic Court Filing TC has established data standards for providers who transmit legal documents into the court as efiling providers. These standards allow third-party groups to interface with courts, letting these providers help attorneys and litigants submit documents and related data.
- Nonprofit groups like Suffolk LIT Lab and ProBonoNet, with the support of funders like the Legal Services Corporation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have built interactive document assembly tools that litigants can use for free to fill in state court forms. They have built authoring systems, like the Document Assembly Line & Law Help Interactive, that allow courts and legal aid groups to convert paper forms to interactive websites for people to use.
A data dictionary will permit easy implementation of plain language interview systems that capture the data needed to generate and coordinate the forms required for each matter type, without the litigant needing to determine which forms are necessary and having to follow multiple and often duplicative instructions.
Pillar 2: Allowing meaningful efiling for all litigants & reducing associated burdens
For the aligned forms to be truly transformative, they must be submittable through efiling so that self-represented litigants can access the system. We are promoting this route by:
- Urging jurisdictions to adopt either traditional efiling systems, a PDF-based system aligned with CMS, or API and data exchanges; and
- Promoting policies to make reasonable reductions in efiling burdens, including notarization, wet signatures, public notice, criminal record checks, and fingerprint requirements, for the length of the pilot (if not beyond).
The goal of this pillar is to create an environment where tech providers are confident that the tools they build can electronically submit form fields in a standard format, with clearly documented protocols and the assurance that local clerks will comply.
Pillar 3: Enabling and supporting sustainable solutions, with benefits of scale
While Pillars 1 and 2 will lay the groundwork for new solutions, we will also consider additional incentives and constraints that might help shape the efiling ecosystem. Together with court leadership and technology providers, we’ll promote strategies to encourage, fund, and support solutions. These might include (among others) supporting grant- or revenue-funded business models, facilitating referrals from court sites and other hubs, and, with support from courts and legal aid organizations, facilitating rigorous user testing prior to launch.
In addition, our team — along with jurisdiction leadership — will consider key metrics for any possible court-endorsed tech tool. Among other things, FFP-aligned and court-endorsed tools should be:
- Discoverable & usable: any FFP-aligned tools should rank high on Google Search, have best-in-class (modern, quick, responsive) tech, and be low-burden to use; analytics should show that people find, use, and complete the relevant forms.
- Provably effective: FFP-aligned tools should demonstrably improve procedural and substantive outcomes, including by enabling straightforward information collection and assembly, speedy filing, and should allow for rigorous evaluation.
- Maintained & sustainable: court-endorsed tools should continue to have accurate content, ideally in multiple languages, and best-in-class tech in the years after their initial builds.
- Values-aligned: tools should allow for free or low-cost form access and completion, should not harvest identifiable data, and should be sensitive to the needs of, and challenges facing, self-represented litigants.
In March 2022, a group that included a mix of state supreme justices, court administrators, access to justice officials and other leaders from six states – Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia — came together to discuss priorities in the three key work areas described above: aligning common fields, reducing efiling burdens, and encouraging sustainable solutions. With work on these three pillars underway, the pilot will eventually enable tech partners to build, scale, and iterate on robust, user-friendly filing tools. The Filing Fairness Project will thus facilitate the development of a more accessible, responsive filing experience for self-represented litigants, legal aid organizations, and others in the civil justice system.
If you are a state official, legal aid attorney, or leader hoping to learn more about the Filing Fairness Project — or to consider future involvement — please fill out the short “Getting Involved” survey below.