The dramatic increase in do-it-yourself law has created major problems nationwide, putting people who represent themselves at a disadvantage and bogging down courts with litigants who don’t understand the system.
The NuLawLab is taking an innovative approach to this problem by creating an online computer game that will help pro se litigants—those who represent themselves—become familiar with the intimidating rules and procedures of the American legal system.
“These people are going before a judge without a lawyer and they often don’t understand either the process or the law,” says Dan Jackson, executive director of the NuLawLab. “The stakes are high—they are potentially going to lose their house, their apartment, or their child.”
The project, which is funded by a federal Legal Services Grant, has already received international attention, placing third for the 2014 Innovating Justice Award given by The Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law, in the Netherlands.
“The goal is to create a product that is truly responsive to the needs of pro se litigants,” says Jackson. “This is a wonderful reflection of Northeastern’s strengths, combining experiential learning with interdisciplinary innovation.”
Jackson has teamed up with Northeastern game-design professors Casper Harteveld and Gillian Smith, as well as court officials and pro se litigants from Connecticut, who will pilot the project. Northeastern students will also play a key role in developing the new tool. Jackson and law professor Martha Davis lead a law seminar in which students devise the broad concepts of the game based on their research into the pro se problem. Harteveld and Smith, in turn, have employed a half dozen students from across the university to build it.
The finished product embodies the experiential learning concept that lies at the core of the university’s education philosophy. Although mountains of instructional material already exist online, Harteveld points out that it fails to provide litigants with an opportunity to practice or learn from their mistakes.
“But if you are actually doing it in a virtual setting, you have to think about why you are making each decision,” he says. “It’s a more conscious way of processing information.”
“They use flight simulators to train pilots and games to train levee inspectors in the Netherlands,” notes Jackson. “So why not use games to train people who represent themselves in court? Our goal is to create an online simulation that allows people to play it over and over again so that they improve their familiarity and confidence.”
Percentage of cases that involve pro se litigants
97% of domestic violence cases in New Hampshire district courts
90% of eviction cases in California
73% of family law cases in Florida
84% of child support cases in California
—statistics from a 2006 report by the National Center for State Courts