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CourtChat


CourtChat is a free mobile product that helps defendants navigate the legal system by providing timely, relevant, and actionable updates about their case and how to prepare for what lies ahead.

Role: Product manager, researcher, designer
Collaborators: , Cuyahoga County Office of the Public Defender & Court of Common Pleas
Funds Raised: $400,000
Tools: Figma, Miro, Chat GPT, Webflow


This is a continuation of a longer project. Click the button to learn more about how we got here.



Problem


The criminal legal system is a maze that experts are trained to maneuver. Defendants are expected to make life-altering decisions about their case without significant information or context.

😓 Overworked Public Defenders

Public defenders understand what is happening in their client's case, but they often do not have enough time to inform and educate them. 73% of public defenders take on more cases than is sustainable.
As a result, the defendant may feel confused and helpless, which can lead to a lack of trust in the legal system. This lack of trust may also extend to the public defender, causing a strained relationship that can result in more adverse outcomes in some cases.

😖 Complex and jurisdiction-specific processes

The average defendant must complete ~200 tasks during their legal proceedings, and any misstep can have serious consequences.
Defendants don't have an easy way to access accurate and easily digestible information about how the legal system operates locally. Even if defendants take the time to seek out and understand the legal process, applying that information to the conditions of their specific case takes a lot of time and effort.

Navigating the legal system is like trying to understand a complex medical issue.
The doctor quickly explains your situation and options in a 5-minute window before moving on to the next patient. With little understanding of the condition or terms used, you are left unsure of which questions to ask. You leave confused and uncertain of what’s next.


Opportunity


How might we improve defendants’ understanding of and engagement with their case in context?

We hypothesize that improving defendants’ understanding of and engagement with their case will lead to
Higher defendant trust in the legal system
More positive and productive relationships with legal representation
Higher court appearance rates, which saves the courts money


Solution (MVP)


A chat-based assistant that helps defendants and their families navigate the legal system by providing timely, relevant, and actionable updates about defendants' cases and how to prepare for what lies ahead.

We learned from usability testing that when learning about the legal process, timing and context are critical. Defendants want to learn in the context of what is happening in their case at the moment.

🔔 Real-Time Updates

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unBail notifies defendants in real-time when there are important updates to their case in progress.
Defendants receive a pre-populated calendar invite that integrates with their phone’s native calendar app.

We let defendants set their own reminder schedule, this leverages the psychological principle of 📮 self-initiated triggers to encourage appearance in court.

📖 Learning Prompts

Defendants are prompted with topics related to their next case event. This user-initiated learning helps us learn what people are curious about and leverages the principle of 🏦 investment loops so they’re more likely to continue engaging with future prompts.

Information in messages are intentionally spaced to facilitate scanning. We use lists and emojis as visual cues to separate and anchor each point. These are examples of 👥 chunking, which helps users digest and remember information.
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✅ Legal Questions Answered

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We know we can’t anticipate every question a defendant may have, so we allow defendants to ask us anything about the legal system or their case.
We will manually monitor respond to these questions and, if there is sufficient demand, explore automation for future iterations.

Medium


For our MVP, we chose to communicate via text message because...
Mobile notifications are critical
The timeliness of our messages is very important, our intervention is not helpful if a defendant doesn’t see it until after their case event.
It’s familiar and accessible
It doesn’t require downloading an app or navigating to a website to use.
There’s a low cost to implement
Texting costs almost nothing to stand up and adjust
Texting is an obviously well-established medium with very low transaction costs, we sacrifice customization but are comfortable with this trade off in the short term.



Pilot Test

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We received funding and support from Cuyahoga County (Ohio) to test this concept with defendants navigating the criminal legal system.

Motivating Questions


Does our MVP impact defendants’ feelings of preparation and court appearance rates?
What questions do defendants have throughout their case?

Overview


Study design: randomized controlled trial (one group receives the intervention, the other does not, outcomes are compared between groups)
Intervention: unBail’s chat-based assistant, defendants are notified of important case updates with standard messages and prompts to learn more via text messages.
Measures:
Defendant engagement (🔼 increase)
How often people respond to and engage with prompts (ex. message open rate, questions asked, responses to prompts)
Defendants’ feelings of preparation (🔼 increase)
The day after each case event, unBail will send the defendant a message asking them how prepared they felt for the event.
Court appearance rates (🔼 increase)
Measured from docket entry data. Ex. “defendant present in court”, “warrant issued”, “bond revoked”.
Identify frequently asked questions
Analyze prompt responses and questions submitted to find common themes.
Eligibility
Defendant with an ongoing court case with the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas
Defendant is being represented by a public defender
Access to a mobile phone that can receive and send SMS text messages
Defendant is not being held in jail pretrial
Ability to read and speak English
18+ years

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