The Court Messaging Project is an open-source initiative from Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, to build an out-of-the-box tool for any court or legal services group to send automated messages to their clients. The overarching goal of the project is to make the court system more navigable and to improve people’s sense of procedural justice — that legal system is fair, comprehensible, and user-friendly.
The tool allows for court or legal admins to take clients’ info from their current case management system, and enroll the client in a messaging flow custom to them. The client will receive an automated series of messages with reminders and tips for their upcoming obligations — to make sure that they stay on track with their legal process and are prepared for all the requirements.
Our initial use case is a hearing reminder system for youth in the foster care system. The young person will receive messages with the date, time, and location of their hearings, and they’ll get a series of reminders to ensure that they’re aware and prepared for their hearings. The goal of the pilot use case is to improve the Failure to Appear rate for youth at hearings. We will be gathering data to evaluate how the messaging system affects the appearance rate, as well as the recipients’ perception of procedural justice.
We are developing the tool now as an open-source software that is case management system-agnostic. The goal is that any legal services or court office could use it for minimal money — only the small amounts of money it takes to send the messages over the mobile phone networks — and with minimal technical expertise. They would not have to go through their case management system vendor to get expensive changes or additions through them.
Our Current Design
Our Earlier Design
The platform will also allow more ambitious types of messages in the future. Aside from hearing and appointment reminders, there could be other ‘court coach’ content distributed through SMS — including public transportation guides to get to court on time, tips on how to dress, speak, and act in court, warnings of common mistakes and failpoints, and other procedural information to ensure a person has the best legal experience possible.
We began our work with two initial target users:
- a Juvenile Defendant, who has been arrested & now has an upcoming appearance at court to resolve his case, and
- a Court Staff Member, who wants to ensure that people scheduled to appear in court actually do appear.
Our project’s initial main goal is to reduce the Failure to Appear rate among juveniles. This will serve the Juvenile User by protecting him from fines, warrants for arrest, and holds on his driver’s license. It may also increase his confidence in the judicial system and sense of procedural fairness.
It will serve the Court Staff User’s (and the judicial system’s) interest in efficiency — by lessening the need to reschedule appearances, achieving resolution more promptly, and preventing cases from becoming more complicated or lengthy — putting a higher demand on the system’s limited resources.
From this initial use case, we have expanded to all kinds of people who are in need of process-guidance to be able to follow through on getting legal help. This includes people going through divorce, getting evicted, or seeking out legal aid or brief advice clinics.
After more exploratory workshops, we’ve identified several different use cases for automating text messages between courts/legal aid groups and people:
- Process Coaching: When people have signed up for a legal process — or been forced into one, and text messages can provide them customized, regular information about where they are in the process and what they should be doing
- RSVP and Prep: When people want to attend a clinic, workshop, or special services — and they can send in an RSVP and be prepared for the event and services
- Screening for eligibility and issues: When the legal org wants to screen a person for eligibility and their situation, the text messages can lead them through this guided interview and provide them with some outcome about next steps.
We are building the system to be open-source, so that it will be free to use by any organization that is not using it for commercial purposes. We also are building it to be modular and scalable, so that the system could be deployed in many different jurisdictions with minimal customization.
To develop the system, we will be working with lawyers who work with the Santa Clara County court representing kids in foster care during their state hearings. These lawyers & court officials will provide us input & a pilot sandbox to create a basic first version of a Court Reminder Messaging system. We will run this first version as a test case, to see if the basics of the text messaging work and provide value to both target users.
If the pilot system is found to be functional, affordable, and worthwhile, then we plan to scale it up in several possible directions:
- more types of messaging — for appointments not just with the court, but with attorneys, probation officers, and other people involved in the process
- richer content in the messages — with information about transportation to the courts, what to expect during court proceedings, how to dress and behave, red flag warnings, and best practice advice
- messaging to other people in the juvenile’s circle, including parents, who may encourage the juvenile to appear, help coordinate transportation to make it easier to make the appointment, and provide other support that will improve the court appearance
We are working in a small core team to build partnerships with court staff and develop a first version of a Court Messaging System.
The team is comprised of Margaret Hagan, Briane Cornish, James Williams, Andrew Suciu, and John Merriman Sholar. We are partnered with the Stanford Computer Science group Code the Change, who works to build civic projects on a pro bono basis.
Margaret is leading the design process of the project, scoping out the mission and producing initial work product.
Andrew and John are building the messaging tool to be using in our first pilot — and working with our partners in Santa Clara & the California Judicial Council to make sure that the tool will work with the current systems and fit the current workflows.
Briane is developing the relationships with judges, court staff, and other stakeholders, who will partner with us to launch pilots.
James is advising on the development the system itself, and working with court IT staff to design the system that will most workable for the courts.