Emerging Technology Trends that Will Transform Courts

Technology can be transformational. For courts this means involving the entire court organization, wedding technology to serious efforts at process reengineering, migrating from document to content management, and having the power to manage customer relations.

Chris Crawford
President, Justice Served
2011

Change and Process Reengineering

Technological change is happening at a breakneck pace. It encompasses not just hardware and software, but the way we interact with each other as individuals, customers, employers, and family members. The pressure on courts to adopt technological advances, especially as a means to counterbalance budgetary shortfalls, is enormous. Focusing primarily on technology as the solution to court problems has not proven to be a successful strategy. The reasons for this are that courts are steeped in a culture of precedent and caselaw where implementing change can be an arduous process, and courts too often look to technology for quick, superficial fixes.

However, technology serves as a very effective enabler of meaningful change if it is coupled with a serious internal examination of court service delivery and a thoughtful effort to reengineer court processes. This effort should include a wide spectrum of internal court participants, such as judges, management, courtroom clerks, clerical staff, probation (to the extent that it is an internal function of the court), and court IT staff. If IT support is not part of the core court family and provided outside of the organization (e.g., by the city, county, or state), it is still vital to have their firsthand exposure to the results of any process-reengineering efforts.

Here are a few areas to focus the group’s attention:

• Identify the biggest problems facing the participants.

• Ask for suggested solutions to those problems.

• Challenge the individuals to consider that a vast majority of courts in the United States try only a very small percentage of the incoming caseload. (Note that it is difficult to get a precise figure on jury trials due to differing state definitions of what constitutes a "trial.") Within this context, what programs, policies, and procedures are needed to stimulate the highest means of case resolution (case settlement)?

• Ask whether current processes are necessary at all, and if so whether they could be performed on the Internet or in an alternative (less labor-intensive) way.

• Ask about the subject matter of the most frequent calls and front-counter interactions. Consider how to address these inquiries by some other means.

• Ask whether "back-end" office tasks are duplicated in multiple locations and whether it may be more advantageous to consolidate these functions in one location.

• Check as to the frequency of personnel shortages in critical positions, such as judicial officers, interpreters, and court reporters. Consider whether these as-needed "deployments" could be accomplished by audio or video teleconferencing. Include in this category case backlogs that could be addressed by assigning a "virtual" judge.

These are but a few of the in-depth areas of judicial administration that should be seriously considered by internal court operatives. The technology solutions to these problems are likely to be surprisingly straightforward, but successful implementation will require significant procedural and operational changes that the court organization must embrace as necessary and accept as an improvement over the status quo. After this internal examination, external stakeholder groups, such as prosecutors, public defenders, the bar, law enforcement, corrections, and others, should be brought in to further expand on reengineering options.

So is that it? Is this the magic formula the courts can follow to turn around their economic woes and continue to deliver high-quality court services? Not entirely. There are a few missing ingredients that will take these efforts to a much higher level if the court is willing to accept the challenge.

Content Versus Document Management

To take the next steps, a robust, automated case management system is needed that is capable of providing the right management information and data files. It also includes court management and IT staff willing to take the next steps toward taming age-old problems in records and customer management in a much more comprehensive way.

First, there is a critical need to migrate away from document management into content management. Court clerical staff tends to fixate on the documents that are filed with the court, with a premium placed on maintaining the immutability of those documents in an effort to protect the integrity of case files. As such, too many E-filing projects squander the opportunity to capture what is contained in the document and focus primarily on filing a document that is reproducible in as close to the original format as possible.

The chief reason this is not a good strategy should be clear. Courts perform intelligence work, which requires that the right information be available to decision makers when needed. This applies to judges, mediators, courtroom clerks, caseflow managers, family-law facilitators, probation, and just about everyone in the custody chain of that file.

There is another good reason why content management is sorely needed in today’s courts. With the exception of evidence presentation technology and legal research, most IT advancements are directed to the clerical side of the court organization to help "manage" files, produce calendars, generate notices, and provide customer service.

Those leaders that have embraced the concept of the "paperless court" have directed their attention primarily to document management solutions, including imaging, scanning, and e-filing of immutable PDF files. Even the most robust document management system renders the judge to the unenviable role of scrolling through electronic files seeking the information that is needed to make an informed ruling. Too many of these document management "solutions" merely photograph files and lump them into poorly organized folders or directories.

The result is a judge (often on the bench) hunched over one or more computer screens searching for pertinent portions of the record. For those court leaders who have embraced the CourTools performance measures and surveyed courtroom participants for perceptions of fairness, it is no surprise that we are receiving lower and lower scores on the question of whether the judge listened to my side of the story before he or she made a decision about my case. All too frequently, we find ourselves in the same position when we visit our doctor or health-care professional. Instead of listening to the patient, it is not unusual for the medical representative to direct his or her attention to a computer screen; think about how often this has happened to you and how you felt afterward about the quality of your health care.

So let us take a typical family-law calendar where a judge has multiple cases on the morning docket, and the first case comes up. What does the judge need to know about that case to make a quality ruling? I suggest the following baseline data is needed:

•  Whether or not the case in chief has been adjudicated. This is a critical issue because the context in which a judge rules differs between pre- and post-disposition cases. In the former, the guiding principle in most states is what is in the best interest of the child (or the parties in the absence of children)? In the latter, it is what has changed in the circumstances since this case was adjudicated, and does that change now warrant action by the court?

•  Is there a marriage, and if so what is the length of the marriage?

•  Are there children? What are their ages, and are their special circumstances (child abuse, mental competency, medical issues, etc.)? Has custody been resolved?

•  Is there debt, and if so has the resolution of that debt been decided?

•  Is there real property, and if so has the resolution of that real property been decided?

•  Is there a pension or military benefits, and if so has the resolution of that pension or military benefits been decided?

•  Has this case gone through mediation, and if so what was the resolution?

All of this information resides somewhere in the case file. It can be discerned by perusing the paper or electronic file before or during the calendar call, or it could be extracted from the content of the case file using search and taxonomy tools and presented as a dossier of sorts summarizing the pertinent case issues. This would speed up resolution of the matter and allow the judge to pay attention to the parties and even to begin resolving some of the loose ends in the case that may not be at issue at that particular hearing.

Customized macros or data queries could be constructed to produce the typical information needed to rule on a civil, misdemeanor, felony, probate, or any other case, and even assigned to a shortcut keyboard command, such as an F (function) key, or other quick means to produce a summary report.

Often I hear court managers and IT staff complain the judges are slow to embrace document management solutions. I contend that if the focus were to shift from documents to content management, judges would quickly see how the technology could be harnessed to improve the quality and timeliness of judicial decisions, as well as to solve everyday, real-life problems.

Customer Relations Management

The remaining shift that is needed to truly apply technology to court operational needs is the adoption of customer relations management. To illustrate this point, let me relate a recent experience.

I was teaching a caseflow course in Alexandria, Virginia, and I was staying at a hotel some distance from the training venue. During breakfast on the first day, I called the local cab company on my cell phone and ordered a taxi. Soon after I hung up, I received a text message confirming my order and indicating that Fred would be there in five minutes. I then received another text when Fred arrived. That night, I was driven back to my hotel by one of the participants.

The next morning, I called the same cab company. I was greeted by name and asked if I was going to the same destination as the previous day. I said yes, and soon thereafter received text messages confirming my order and the arrival of the taxi.

Let us examine what just happened. The cab company received a call for service from someone they considered to be a one-time customer. After my call on the second day, I became a frequent customer, so the company anticipated my order and acted accordingly. How does this apply to courts?

Courts deal with frequent and infrequent customers. Lawyers, attorney services, and even the media are frequent customers with predictable needs that are easily anticipated and, in many instances, fulfilled with little or no staff interaction. Infrequent customers such as litigants and witnesses have relatively predictable needs as well. They often need to know the location and date of hearings, whether matters are postponed, directions to the courthouse and to locations within the courthouse, and compliance information.

The art and science of customer relations management uses software and data to manage the customer "touch points" using the least labor intervention. It could be as simple as allowing individuals to "subscribe" to a particular case and thereby receive notice (in a form of the customer’s choosing) whenever there are filings, hearings, postponements, rulings, etc. If the customer is infrequent, this information could be accompanied by directions to the courthouse and courtroom, what is needed to prepare, and even what is needed to comply with resulting court orders. Anticipating and filling these needs even before the customer asks results in fewer phone calls, fewer trips to the front counter, fewer instances of failure to appear, and higher instances of compliance.

With reduced customer service hours and court staff, customer relations management can be a powerful tool to enable courts to continue to deliver quality court services, improved access to justice, and cost efficiencies.

The Bottom Line

Technology is a powerful enabler that can empower courts to meet core purposes and responsibilities, even while severe economic pressures reduce court staff, reduce hours of operation, and even close court locations. To harness technology for this purpose, serious efforts are needed to examine process-reengineering opportunities, and courts must plan to (a) migrate from document to content management and (b) initiate customer relations management to improve the quality of justice, access to justice, and public trust and confidence in courts as an institution.