Using a human-centred design approach we created a digital service that makes filing for uncontested divorces accessible to British Columbians without a lawyer.
We worked with British Columbia’s Ministry of the Attorney General — responsible for administering justice and delivering public safety services across the province — to simplify the uncontested divorce filing process. That meant addressing poor usability, technical limitations, and complex authentication procedures.
Every year, 10,000 British Columbians file for divorce. Of those, 30% are uncontested divorces. Even uncontested divorces — divorces where both parties agree on support, property, and debt — can leave a person feeling grieved, confused, and isolated.
We worked with the Ministry of the Attorney General to bring dignity, humanity, and empathy to the uncontested divorce process.
The existing filing process was complicated and error-prone, burdening both citizens and the system
Filing for divorce is expensive.
On average filing for an uncontested divorce with a lawyer costs $1,600. For the many British Columbians who can’t afford a lawyer, their access to justice is limited by their income.
Navigating the process without a lawyer is hard.
Many citizens file for uncontested divorces as self-represented litigants because they can’t afford a lawyer. Navigating the filing process and the filling out the corresponding documents—all of which were designed for lawyers and judges—was confusing and overwhelming, adding to the stress of getting a divorce.
Most uncontested divorce filings are done incorrectly and rejected the first time.
This was at a cost to both to the Provincial Government and its citizens. The staff at the court registry spent time and resources processing, then rejecting erroneous filings, sometimes repeatedly. Errors led to delays, which made the process more frustrating for citizens.
Government isn’t agile.
Most comparable digital service projects in government employ a waterfall methodology. If we wanted to take a Design Thinking-informed approach we needed to be iterative and therefore agile. The typical Government release schedules and process weren’t conducive to this rapid iteration and deployment model that the project demanded.
How to make uncontested divorce (more) accessible for all citizens, while driving costs down
Audit the existing process.
Making a service better starts with design research. To understand the current process—both its strengths and its shortcomings—our Service Design team travelled across the province to conduct stakeholder interviews.
Give everyone a voice.
We studied the forms, read the laws, and worked closely with the Superior Courts Judiciary. We listened to people who had used the old system, lawyers familiar with the process, judges, and filing clerks who rejected or accepted forms at the Ministry. This research helped us unravel user needs and understand what the ideal service experience might look like.
Define the principles.
Next, we created a fundamental set of design principles to direct our approach. We decided that iterative was best for this project because we wanted to continue working with citizens to improve the system while it was being built.
Build, test, refine, repeat.
An Agile approach to software development was ideal because it welcomes changing requirements, daily cooperation, and the frequent delivery of software. Unlike waterfall methodologies commonly used in government, the Agile framework allowed us to design and test the system with users concurrently, improving it with each iteration.
Choose technologies that compliment your agile approach.
Using Django and Python, we built a simple code base that could withstand the rapid iteration that comes from evolving requirements.
Work within (and around) IT constraints.
By working with the Ministry of Citizen Services we were able to utilize the state of the art cloud-based platform OpenShift. Using this lightweight, open-source platform in conjunction with modern development tools we were able to quickly build, deploy, and continuously improve during the private beta evaluation period.
Be conversational and understandable.
We used language that’s direct and less formal to accommodate varying levels of literacy and make the forms understandable. We explained legal terms in a friendly, non-confrontational way. Lastly, we chose an interrogative approach over declarative commands to help people were speaking with someone instead of filling in forms.
Leverage assisted digital.
Give citizens the option to move through the questions side-by-side with someone who can help, or let them complete the process on their own.
Test in the real world.
Before launching the service at scale, we released a private beta in select Courthouse Libraries BC and Justice Access Centre locations. Insights from real users helped us discover blindspots and improve the service using real-world data.
The outcomes of using human-centred design in the justice sector
Helped government innovate.
Using technologies that are open source and processes that are transparent, documented, and repeatable we helped our government client embrace innovation.
Faster and easier to use.
Our Online Divorce Application Assistant makes the process of filing for uncontested divorces faster and easier for citizens in the middle of an emotional and stressful period of their lives. By using a series of plain language questions that can be answered in 15 to 30 minutes, the Divorce Assistant generates the correct forms already filled out, ready to be printed and dropped off at a local court registry.
Citizens save money.
Our simple interface also saves citizens approximately $1,600 in legal fees, ensuring fairer, more equitable access to this public service.