nulawlab Project

Redesigning Housing Court

Our courts are out of balance. A judicial system premised on the concept of professional representation is now increasingly deciding cases in which at least one side is not represented by counsel. In some instances, all parties have lawyers. In others, some litigants have lawyers and some do not. In many matters, none of the parties have the assistance of counsel. In every instance, people and organizations are seeking resolution of critical disputes ranging from basic shelter to child custody to payment for damages, and everything in between.  Although our justice community has responded with, among other things, a significant expansion of resources for unrepresented litigants, it remains the case that the current system was designed for a reality that no longer exists. The time is right to rethink how our courts do business, and reconsider the structure of our judicial system, so that it can better meet the needs of everyone involved.

A partnership of three organizations – The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, Northeastern University School of Law’s NuLawLab, and the premier design and innovation consultancy IDEO – is ready and able to tackle a fundamental redesign of formal conflict resolution for an age when legal representation is no longer assured. Our process will leverage the application of service and system design methodologies to approach the challenge from the perspective of the full range of end-users of our courts – represented and unrepresented parties, attorneys, judges, clerks and administrators, jury members, and many others. The targeted outcome of our project is a fully redesigned trial court experience that, after sufficient evaluation, could be scaled geographically and substantively to other trial court departments across Massachusetts as well as other jurisdictions across the country. 

Four Phases over Five Years

Tackling this challenge will not be easy. It is achievable, however, by deploying tested methods that are carefully phased and thoughtfully scaled to reflect the unique needs of justice delivery.  We will commence our efforts in the Massachusetts Housing Court, where 71% of litigants are unrepresented, and where interventions such as the Lawyer for the Day program have demonstrated success.  Our efforts will unfold over four carefully-structured phases:

  • Phase One is focused on project planning, fundraising, project staffing, design research and system mapping, during which our project team will engage with participants inside and outside the court system to identify key design opportunities. We will map the system from multiple user perspectives to understand the journey for participants across all parts of the Housing Court.
  • Phase Two focuses on designing and prototyping new processes and tools, which will then be rapidly tested and refined based on user feedback.
  • Phase Three is the pilot period, where refined design solutions are implemented in select Housing Court locations, with the results monitored and evaluated for purposes of further refinement.
  • Phase Four caps the project by scaling out the successfully piloted solutions across the Housing Court and, where applicable, to the remaining Trial Court Departments. 

Compelling idea, isn’t it? Remarkably, we’ve not secured the funding we need to get started, despite a full year of trying. We’ve heard basically the same thing from the heads of our leading foundations - it is an excellent idea, but one that has never been done. To be sure, courts are beginning to explore the use of design to address the access-to-justice gap, but outcomes are at least a year away.  What we are seeking now is just $50,000 in pledges. That would allow us to pilot and evaluate a few ideas generated by the design work we’ve already done, with outcomes ready within three months. We are confident the objectively-measured results will convince additional funders to join the effort.

For more information about the project, or to become involved, please contact: