The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an initiative it said will make agency services and websites more user-friendly for citizens and veterans seeking justice.

The initiative, led by the Office for Access to Justice and dubbed “Access DOJ,” focuses on customer experiences and human-centered design, a problem-solving process to simplify and promote programs, services and resources.

“The pursuit of access to justice for all requires innovation and modern tools,” Director Rachel Rossi said in a statement to Federal Times. “Human-centered design practices can help close the justice gap by making our services and programs more accessible, effective and efficient.”

For example, human-centered design has already been used in this initiative to revise the presidential pardon form after an individual completes a sentence with the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. Those forms are complicated and usually completed with the help of legal counsel, so the department simplified the language, eliminated unnecessary questions and built in a checklist to make it easier for applicants to fill it in without one. That new form is currently in use, and its redevelopment involved feedback from the public, usability testing and best practices in design.

In 2022, the latest year for the ranking, the DOJ received an “F” in quality writing in the Center for Plain Language’s report card.

With public trust in government at near-record lows, the Biden administration has ordered agencies to look for ways to revamp, modernize and declutter the systems that Americans use to interact with them. In 2021, an executive order said this trust can be earned back when government is held accountable for “designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.”

Since then, several agencies have taken a look at their aging systems and reliance on paper processing to reflect a more instantaneous efficient exchange of services and information.

Veterans are also facing many of the same legal challenges civilians are, like unemployment and family law disputes. From their service, they can also encounter mental and physical health issues.

According to an ATJ Fact Sheet, veterans experience a multitude of civil and criminal legal disadvantages. For example, in 2021, 84% of civil legal problems braved by low-income veterans did not receive enough or any legal help. Neglected legal issues can increase the likelihood of homelessness or incarceration.

One in three veterans have reported being arrested at least once, compared to one-fifth of the nonveteran population, and over 100,000 are incarcerated in state or federal facilities. Of incarcerated veterans in the U.S., approximately 30% have a history of homelessness.

Since 2021, ATJ has been working to improve access for veterans, servicemembers and their families through veteran-centered engagement to understand their legal needs and perspectives.

Before the launch of Access DOJ, ATJ worked with legal aid providers, veterans and veteran organizations to inform improvements to services provided and the launch can expand this access, according to an ATJ spokesperson.

“Consistent with the mission and goals of Access DOJ, the Office of Access to Justice (ATJ) is centering the voices of Veterans to collaboratively design people-centered solutions,” the spokesperson said.

ATJ is working to increase access to justice for veterans through veteran-centered engagement by hosting virtual briefings, listening sessions and reentry simulations open to legal aid partners and veterans.

For its own part, Access DOJ will conduct “high-impact projects” with internal offices, provide resources and trainings in usability testing and plain language writing, and will chain a group of representations from the department to share their experiences and advance the initiative.

Next on the list for Access DOJ is to focus on the how to reduce barriers to reporting crime or law violations to the department by reviewing and improving the reporting portals.

“When government forms and processes are only accessible to lawyers or those who can afford them, everyone suffers and the justice gap widens,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and White House Council Stuart F. Delery said in a roundtable report. “We remain committed to ensuring that every American can truly access the legal system, services, and benefits of this nation.”

Cristina Stassis is an editorial fellow for Defense News and Military Times, where she covers stories surrounding the defense industry, national security, military/veteran affairs and more. She is currently studying journalism and mass communication and international affairs at the George Washington University.

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