Legal design and visualisation

By Jenny Lin|03 August 2020
Legal design and visualisation

“Design thinking” has gained significant momentum in recent years. Whilst there are different schools of thought on what exactly design thinking entails, the term has been used to describe a general approach to problem-solving, writes Jenny Lin.

The design thinking process often consists of identifying an issue, seeking the views of involved parties, particularly the end user, and generating and testing ideas in a rapid and iterative manner.

“Legal design” is the adoption of the design thinking process into the legal sector. It seeks to improve the law by focusing on the needs of the end user. People encounter the law almost everyday of their lives, from seeking legal advice on a dispute with a neighbour to receiving and signing an employment contract. However, in the traditional world of law, access to justice is often inhibited by costs, delay, and general confusion of the legal system.

We live in a law-thick world, where the complex legal frameworks imposed on everyday activities are not catering to the needs of all persons who must deal with the law. The general population includes people with low levels of education, those living with neurological variations, and those coming from different origins and backgrounds.

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What is evident is the current legal system is not serving the needs of all. Legal design seeks to address this deficiency.

Margaret Hagan of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford University has said that the benefits of legal design include user-centred innovation and new paths for legal work and serving justice. By prioritising the views of lay users of the legal system, the provision of legal services can be improved.

A very brief overview of Hagan’s legal design process:

1. Identify stakeholders, including the user

2. Identify the issues faced by users and their wants

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3. Brainstorm and develop possible solutions

4. Test prototype solution

5. Evolve prototype in response to feedback

One application of legal design is visualisation. Legal design prioritises the use of visuals in the legal profession to aid understanding, of both laypeople and legal practitioners. Visualisation tackles the issue of how to make the world of law clearer, more engaging and more accessible.

Whilst lawyers have traditionally worked with words, there is increasing acceptance that visual elements and aids can play a useful role in increasing understanding of the law. Research shows graphics and illustrations promote motivation and engagement. This is particularly prevalent in education and psychology academic literature, which focuses around how the mind works and learns.

Incorporating graphics and illustrations assists readers in navigating their way through law-thick texts, such as contracts with large blocks of legal words. Susan Ursel states visualisation conveys information in a more cohesive, holistic, and demonstrable way. Marcelo Corrales et al. suggest visualisation may be implemented into legal documents by including graphs, icons, tables, charts and images.

Other scholars, such as Lois Lupica, recommend cartoons and stick figures, which only display relevant details and have been proven to diminish anxiety in the medical context.

The Comic Contracts Project has stated that there are often too many “micro-transactions” within contracts, where people do not read their full agreement as there are often too many unnecessary terms or legal jargon. Often, vulnerable groups are simply unable to engage with standard contracts.

Global engineering and infrastructure advisory company, Aurecon, was the first company in Australia to launch a visual employment contract in early March 2018. Aiming to create a succinct and meaningful visual contract, abiding by the company’s principles, Aurecon replaced its traditional word-only employment contract with comic strip graphics.

Aurecon’s representative, Liam Hayes, says contracts should be written in an accessible language to provide for a more open and transparent employee-employer relationship. The elimination of legal terms and lengthy employment documents has improved workforce understanding of employee rights and obligations.

With visual contracts gaining greater traction, Australia should now look to the American use of visuals in criminal trials. Australian litigators currently rely on written evidence and oral participation in trials. However, this may not be the most effective mode of communication.

The challenge posed by complex criminal trials is that jurors often find it difficult to understand the law or a judge’s instructions. Lawyers are given the difficult task of communicating unfamiliar and complicated information to an audience with no legal background. As the complexity of the trial increases and the information more voluminous, jury engagement, comprehension and retention often decrease. This is a critical concern as the jury is expected to understand the evidence and use it to arrive at a just decision.

The answer to this concern lies in visualisation. Visual learning is the most effective learning method for the majority of the population, increasing both comprehension and recall. Further research by Harold Weiss and James McGrath has proven that our ability to retain information is 650 per cent better when humans both see and hear information, compared with only hearing it.

In the courtroom, increased use of visual aids, such as flow charts, PowerPoint presentations or diagrams may prove useful in promoting greater understanding of the trial, in both jurors and legal practitioners.

Kerri Ruttenberg of Jones Day even stated the effectiveness of simply using different colours to represent parties in a visual timeline to improve jurors’ retention of events. Using visualisation to facilitate greater comprehension and retention will ultimately further the process of justice.

The state of current technology makes it easy to implement visualisation in the courtroom. During the COVID-19 pandemic, courts have found a multitude of ways to enable parties to appear virtually, whether through the use of court AVL (audiovisual link) or third-party software, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Documents can also be signed and filed electronically.

Under pressure, courts and lawyers have been able to rapidly increase their use of technology. There is no prohibition on the use of visualisation in the delivery of legal services. With the growing uncertainty around the ramifications of COVID-19, it is undetermined when face-to-face trials will fully resume, or if courts wish to move towards virtual trials as a permanent mode of delivery.

Given the proven benefits of visual aids in promoting engagement and understanding of the law, it’s time for lawyers to think about incorporating visualisation in other elements of their work, including within the courtroom.

Jenny Lin is a penultimate arts/law student at UNSW who interned in the Law Society of NSW’s Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (FLIP) Research Stream.

Legal design and visualisation
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