With no access to affordable legal representation, increasing numbers of people must represent themselves in legal proceedings. The justice community in the United States has responded by expanding resources to help self-represented parties navigate the system and get their day in court. However, with no experience addressing a judge, questioning a witness, or offering documents into evidence, self-represented parties find themselves facing these tasks for the very first time in a real-life hearing environment, with a lot at stake. Across the U.S. the problem is acute. Nationally, more than 80% of litigants appear without lawyers in matters as important as evictions, mortgage foreclosures, child custody and child support proceedings, and debt collection cases. In New York State Courts alone, 1.8 million litigants appear without an attorney annually, accounting for nearly 10% of the state’s population. Last year, there were 28,469 cases in Connecticut’s family courts with at least one self-represented party, and nearly half of those cases had two or more self-represented parties. An additional 20,000 civil cases in Connecticut courts had at least one self-represented party. The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index confirms what we all know: lack of affordable legal counsel is a global problem.
Back in 2014, we thought self-represented parties could benefit from an online interactive “serious game” simulating aspects of an actual legal proceeding. Self-represented parties “are asking for practical tools and skills that they can apply in practice” (Macfarlane, 2013). Games have proven to make a positive impact on cognition and behavior because they are experiential learning environments that allow users, through trial and retrial, to attain the necessary (virtual) experience that will help guide future action in reality.
Our idea was twofold:
- Use gaming technology to provide self-represented parties in Connecticut with some foundational advocacy experience before doing it for real; and
- Use a highly collaborative design process that contributes to building a community of support around the needs of self-represented parties.
You can play the finished product here: ctlawhelp.org/represent The game is hosted on CTLawHelp.org, a website that provides free legal information to low-income self-represented litigants in Connecticut.
Thanks to a 2017 TIG grant from the Legal Services Corporation, we are currently scaling the game out to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, creating a mobile app version of the game, and creating a version specific to summary process eviction - RePresent:Renter. The new games will go live in December, 2017.
RePresent is a unique product: as a self-help resource, interactive online games have not yet been systematically explored and deployed as we envision. We also used a unique process of creation – a multidisciplinary project team of legal aid lawyers, technology managers, experienced game designers, legal educators, law students, and artists worked with self-represented parties, judges, court personnel, and others through collaborative design rounds that translated the experience into game scenarios.