Stanford Law’s Rhode Center and Legal Design Lab Launch Filing Fairness Toolkit

December 5, 2023 – Today Stanford Law School’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession‘s and Legal Design Lab’s Filing Fairness Project announced the launch of its Filing Fairness Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind, interactive guide for state courts to increase access to justice for all court users by modernizing, standardizing, and simplifying court technology and filing systems. 

The toolkit provides concrete, actionable recommendations for courts and court partners to work across jurisdictions to implement and scale court filing systems. The Filing Fairness Project, a joint venture of the law school’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession and Legal Design Lab, is an ambitious, multi-jurisdictional effort to modernize court filing processes and improve access to courts and the administration of justice by leveraging readily available technology.

Access to justice in crisis

The U.S. legal system is currently gripped by an access to justice crisis. Roughly three-quarters of the millions of civil cases filed in the U.S. each year feature at least one self-represented litigant trying to navigate the legal system alone. Many of these cases are significant, even life-altering moments: debt disputes, evictions, domestic violence, or a former partner behind on child support. And yet, court users often grapple with outdated and needlessly complex filing systems and processes. Some are unable to find information they need, others are intimidated by court form complexity and language, and still others are deterred by barriers like in-person notarization requirements or cumbersome electronic filing systems. 

David Freeman Engstrom, LSVF Professor in Law and the Co-Director of the Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession

Court stakeholders are burdened as well: Judges receive incorrect or irrelevant information in court filings, clerks must manually enter data into difficult-to-use systems, and lawyers are slowed by inefficient filing tools.

“The access to justice crisis has many culprits, but mounting evidence shows the courts themselves are a key part of the solution,” said David Freeman Engstrom, Stanford’s LSVF Professor in Law and co-director of the Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession. “Looking across the nation’s 10,000 court jurisdictions, one sees a checkerboard of disconnected technology and data systems and byzantine filing systems. The Filing Fairness Toolkit is a unique effort to lay out concrete, achievable steps that courts can take to address these challenges and open courthouse doors wider for all.”

Addressing decentralized technology

The decentralized nature of civil courts contributes to the current filing technology landscape.  Forms and filing requirements vary widely from state to state, and the resulting checkerboard of different systems makes it difficult for technology providers to achieve the scale necessary to invest in robust, user-friendly tools. 

The Filing Fairness Toolkit addresses these problems by focusing on four steps for improvement: (1) standardizing technology system infrastructures; (2) facilitating a diverse ecosystem of service providers; (3) establishing governance and procurement best practices for filing system technology; and (4) promoting easy-to-use digital form preparation and filing tools for a seamless end-to-end digital court experience. Recommendations presented in each of these areas culminate in a maturity model that courts can use to gauge their level of advancement on a progressive scale and against other courts.  

“The Filing Fairness Toolkit proposes common-sense innovations to modernize and simplify state court forms and filing systems,” said Ronald S. Flagg, President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in the U.S., which has invested in court form automation tools for nearly two decades. “The toolkit offers a systematic, concrete, and scalable approach that courts can follow to improve administration and increase access to justice. LSC encourages courts across the country to embrace the opportunity to move forward to simpler and more modern court infrastructure.”

The toolkit was developed over the course of two years, starting with a Stanford Law School Policy Lab class that led to extensive research and conversations with state supreme court justices, court technologists, and access to justice experts. Courts that are in both the early and more advanced stages of their filing modernization efforts will find useful features in the toolkit, including concrete recommendations, a diagnostic tool, maturity models that describe moderate, good, better, and advanced stages of progress, and examples of successful solutions that have been implemented in various state courts. 

The Filing Fairness Project has engaged seven state court partners—in Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and VIrginia—that are interested in collaborating across jurisdictions to improve their forms and filing systems and scale technology solutions.  

“State courts are increasingly challenged by inefficient, burdensome, and hard-to-navigate court filing processes that confound litigants, raise costs, waste judge and staff time, and make courts inaccessible to millions of Americans,” said Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, Texas Supreme Court.“ The recommendations in the Filing Fairness Toolkit will empower state courts and their partners to reshape how they deliver justice by making court systems more accessible, effective, and just. This Toolkit reflects my state’s commitment to court innovation and fairness.”

“The Filing Fairness Toolkit will help courts to modernize court technology systems, implement common-sense, standards-based approaches, increase efficiency, and improve litigants’ ability to meaningfully participate in proceedings affecting their lives,” said Justice Melissa Hart, Colorado Supreme Court.

View the filing fairness toolkit

About the Filing Fairness Project

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. 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; Todd Venook, Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School and Associate Director of Stanford’s Deborah L. Rhode Center, and Lisa Colpoys, Justice Innovation Lead at Stanford Law School. It is supported by the Ford Foundation and the Mousetrap Foundation.

About Stanford’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession 

Through a multidisciplinary approach to teaching, research, and policy, the Rhode Center works to make civil justice more equitable, accessible, and transparent and to promote the legal profession’s commitment to the public interest. Since its founding at Stanford Law School in 2008 by Professor Deborah Rhode, the Center has become a leading voice in the scholarly and policy debates on the present and future challenges facing the profession, including particularly the crisis in access to justice, the role of technology in resolving it, and the need for increased diversity.  The Center is also a vivid example of the unique role law schools can play to connect theory with practice and translate scholarly research into real-world impact to benefit both the profession and the public.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.