So You Think You Know What a Case Is?

JOHN T. MATTHIAS
PRINCIPAL COURT MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT
NATIONAL CENTER FOR STATE COURTS

Courts devote resources to managing standard court case types (e.g., criminal, traffic, juvenile, domestic, civil, and appeals), primarily by using and maintaining a case management system. Other case types—auxiliary and administrative—need similar case management automation for the same reasons.

Virtually all full-time courts in the United States have developed or licensed a case management system (CMS) to help them manage various case types, and this should include case-like matters not traditionally thought of as cases.

What Is a Case?

People who work in courts assume they know what a case is. Considering the larger universe of case types, a more general definition of “case” is: a specific situation, set of circumstances, or initiative that requires a set of actions to achieve an acceptable outcome or objective. Each case has a subject that is the focus of the actions—such as a person, a lawsuit, or an insurance claim—and is driven by the evolving circumstances of the subject (Swenson, 2012: 218).

A case is created by some part of the organization to handle a business problem, with a goal to be achieved before closure. Once initiated, the case “takes on a life of its own.” The case’s owner achieves the organizational goal and produces value for the customer or subject of the case. Human participants—knowledge workers—perform their roles with respect to each case.

Criminal, traffic, juvenile, domestic, civil, and appellate case types obviously meet this “case” definition, and we may call them standard or traditional court case types. Standard case types in appellate courts include appeals from trial and intermediate appellate courts, appeals from administrative agencies, original proceedings, and disciplinary matters involving the bench and bar.

Cases have the following elements:

  1. Participants—(a) one or more parties who are the subject of actions in the case; (b) individual case owners who referred the subjects to the case to reach a specified goal; and (c) persons or organizations providing services to the subjects while the case is active
  2. Data used to initiate and update the case, including specialized data for tracking and measuring performance of the subjects
  3. Reports/Displays, printed on paper or displayed on a screen at the option of the user, to show case status or performance
  4. Event log (register of actions) of past case events (e.g., documents filed, brief descriptions of hearings/meetings), with the capability of attaching an electronic document to an event
  5. Case notes of case owners by date concerning the subjects, in chronological (or reverse chronological) order, also with the capability of attaching an electronic document
  6. Possible statuses of the case and participants
  7. Calendar of future scheduled events and the means to schedule them and provide reminders
  8. Fees assessed and collected during participation in the case, if applicable
  9. Documents generated using case data, e.g., notices, letters, motions

But courts handle other types of cases, which have these characteristics, beyond standard, traditional cases. In fact, a court case may have multiple other cases within it. We can call these other case types auxiliary and administrative cases.

Auxiliary Case Types

Auxiliary case types in trial courts are connected to standard cases, ordered by a judge or an authorized department manager. When the auxiliary case is completed, the result may be reported back to court so the standard case can be closed or further action can be taken.

Organizational units and programs of the court manage auxiliary cases. Auxiliary cases have most or all of the elements of a case—participants to manage, past events to record, future events to schedule—but details of these elements are not recorded in the standard case record, but form their own record of the auxiliary case.

Here is a list of auxiliary case types in state trial courts, where a defendant or other litigant is a party/subject:

a) Supervision during pretrial release and posttrial probation

b) Monitoring of compliance with alternative sentences: deferred/ suspended sentence, community service, restitution

c) Investigations for pretrial release (including juvenile informal referrals) and sentence/disposition recommendations

d) Treatment through problem-solving courts, e.g., drug, DUI, mental health, domestic violence, veterans, fathering, reentry, teen/peer,
truancy, child support, community

e) Programs offered internally or by third-party providers, e.g., alternative dispute resolution programs (e.g., mediation, arbitration), drug
testing, court counseling (individual and group), driver safety class, family-parenting class, victim impact panel, residential treatment

f) Psychological evaluation: fitness for trial, comprehensive

g) Audits of guardianships and conservatorships

h) Collection of court debt: defendant accounts collected by third-party or in-house collection unit

i) Debt setoff/intercept appeals

In the problem-solving court example below, trial courts transfer cases to a drug court, either post-conviction or as a diversion, and provide an educational experience for drug offenders or a diversion program for a youth respondent. Each case assigned to drug court is a “case” that can be managed from beginning to end by capturing a variety of elements associated with it.

Example of Trial Court Auxiliary Case Type: Problem-Solving (Drug) Court

Element of Case

Participation in Drug Court

1. Participants in case

1. Criminal offender, judge, court coordinator, case worker,
probation officer, probation service providers, attorney

2. Data used to initiate and update
the case

2. Criminal offender name and demographics, results of
screenings and assessments, including history of drug use, risk
factors, criminal history, physical and mental health factors,
impairments or disabilities, family factors, living environment,
employment, education, financial resources

3. Reports/Displays

3. Number and demographics of defendants participating during
reporting period; recidivism/success rate

4. Event log of past events in the
case with electronic documents
attached to events

4. Events associated with case status: acceptance or rejection of
the defendant into the program, reason for rejection, staffings
held and participants, referrals for services and programs,
results of substance abuse testing, supervision appointments,
results of drug court proceeding, progress from phase to phase

Types of documents attached: referral court order, releases
executed by participants, treatment plans, supervision case
plans, conditions of participation, progress reports from service
providers, probation reports, completions of referrals

5. Case notes with electronic
documents attached to events

5. Notes of contacts and other information, showing date, time,
and author

6. Possible statuses of case and
participants

6. Initiated, active, inactive, graduated, terminated, interpreter
needed, track or phase status

7. Calendar of future scheduled
events

7. Appointments, staffing dates, progress checkpoints

8. Financial information

8. Fees assessed and collected for program, cost of supervision,
drug testing, fines

9. Documents generated using
case information

9. Notices, warrants, correspondence, graduation certificate


Administrative Case Types

Every court has administrative case types tangentially related to the mission of the court. When an administrative case is created, some functional unit of the court has a specific goal to be achieved before closure. Here is a list of administrative case types with a note about particular elements of the case that are most important:

a) Grant administration (each grant is a “case”)—data for tracking success of the grant

b) Court administrative agenda for judge meetings, strategic planning, technology planning—event log with attached documents and calendar
of future events

c) Outreach activities: speaker’s bureau, law day activities, mock trial competitions, volunteer programs—participants, log of activity
participation, notes about participants, schedule of future activities

d) Media requests (e.g., applications for cameras in courtroom) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)/Sunshine Law record requests—
acknowledge receipt of request, timeline to respond, cost of copies

e) Employee-training administration – certifications, renewal date, hours

f) Contract services by interpreters, conflict counsel—case numbers, dates of service, length of time spent, invoices submitted, etc., so the
court has an electronic record

g) Court reporter transcript request –requester, event log entry with case number, date of request, length of time spent, invoices submitted,
etc., so the court has an electronic record

h) Child-waiting area for children who are testifying in court or whose parents or guardians are conducting court business—tracking of
children dropped off, date/time

i) Court-appointed special advocate program—participants, training, cases participated in, notes about volunteers and their cases

In the example below, trial courts accept grant funding to implement a program, fund a position, or to purchase goods or services. Each grant is a “case” that can be managed from beginning to end by capturing a variety of elements associated with it.

Example of Trial Court Auxiliary Case Type: Problem-Solving (Drug) Court

Element of Case

Participation in Drug Court

1. Participants in case

1. Criminal offender, judge, court coordinator, case worker,
probation officer, probation service providers, attorney

2. Data used to initiate and update
the case

2. Criminal offender name and demographics, results of
screenings and assessments, including history of drug use, risk
factors, criminal history, physical and mental health factors,
impairments or disabilities, family factors, living environment,
employment, education, financial resources

3. Reports/Displays

3. Number and demographics of defendants participating during
reporting period; recidivism/success rate

4. Event log of past events in the
case with electronic documents
attached to events

4. Events associated with case status: acceptance or rejection of
the defendant into the program, reason for rejection, staffings
held and participants, referrals for services and programs,
results of substance abuse testing, supervision appointments,
results of drug court proceeding, progress from phase to phase

Types of documents attached: referral court order, releases
executed by participants, treatment plans, supervision case
plans, conditions of participation, progress reports from service
providers, probation reports, completions of referrals

5. Case notes with electronic
documents attached to events

5. Notes of contacts and other information, showing date, time,
and author

6. Possible statuses of case and
participants

6. Initiated, active, inactive, graduated, terminated, interpreter
needed, track or phase status

7. Calendar of future scheduled
events

7. Appointments, staffing dates, progress checkpoints

8. Financial information

8. Fees assessed and collected for program, cost of supervision,

drug testing, fines

9. Documents generated using
case information

9. Notices, warrants, correspondence, graduation certificate

Courts of last resort manage administrative cases involving bar admissions, attorney and judicial discipline, and a variety of other administrative tasks.

In example below, the court of last resort in a state or territory manages the process of application for admission to the bar. Each bar admission application is a “case” that can be managed from beginning to end by capturing a variety of elements associated with it.

Supreme Court Administrative Case Type Example: Application for Bar Admission

Element of Case

Application for Bar Admission

1. Participants in case

1. Applicant for bar admission, board of law examiners

2. Data used to initiate and update
the case

2. Applicant name and demographics, law-school-graduation
details, jurisdictions admitted or denied, employment and
residence history, other information

3. Reports/Displays

3. List of applicants sitting for bar exam, list of successful
applicants, profiles of applicants and successful candidates

4. Event log of past events in the
case with electronic documents
attached to events

4. Events associated with case status: application, qualifying
materials received, exam taken, results posted, swearing-in
date

Types of documents attached: application, documents verifying
qualifications to be admitted (law-school transcript, affidavits)

5. Case notes with electronic
documents attached to events

5. Administrative notes

6. Possible statuses of case and
participants

6. Applied, pending, passed/failed

7. Calendar of future scheduled
events

7. Admission deadlines, bar examination, admission date

8. Financial information

8. Bar application fee paid

9. Documents generated using
case information

9. Correspondence, notices, notifications

Case Management Automation

Case management is “the method or practice of coordinating the work of organizing all of the relevant information about the case into one place. The case becomes the focal point for assessing the situation, initiating activities and processes, as well as keeping a history record of what has transpired” (Swenson, 2012: 218.)

Case management enables judges, clerks, administrative staff, and probation officers (any of the participants managing a case) to:

  • Perform a series of case-related activities
  • Collaborate with others in multiple, interlinked processes
  • Record the state of the case in a system of record
  • Ultimately deliver a case disposition

Automating case management provides the following benefits (Webster, 1996: 2-3):

  • Reduction of repetitive tasks
  • Enhancement of data quality
  • Increased information accessibility
  • Increased organizational integration
  • Enhanced statistics and monitoring
  • Increased effectiveness

People who work in courts know that their CMS routinely facilitates case management in standard, traditional cases. Why not apply the same resources to other case types?

The reality is that courts manage the majority of auxiliary and administrative case types the old-fashioned way—with paper files, spreadsheets, Access databases, and word-processing documents. A few case types—particularly in problem-solving courts—are automated using a standalone CMS (which may or may not be integrated with the CMS that houses the underlying standard case). Except for these few case types, the concept of “case” has generally not extended beyond standard traditional case types. Automating auxiliary and administrative case types is, thus, a lost opportunity.

Features of Case Management Automation for Other Case Types

The tools to automate other case types have been limited to custom programming and Access database development, which represent additional “silos of information” and carry their own issues of maintainability and backup. Highly configurable CMSs emerged in 2007, however, enabling courts to configure more elements of case management without customizing the base code of the CMS. The same tools for configuring and managing standard case types are available with a highly configurable CMS for auxiliary and administrative case types. Here are some configurable features of CMSs (Matthias, 2008: 33):

  • Select and place data elements on a screen for ease of data entry in initiating or updating a particular case type
  • Add user-defined data elements not included in the predefined database structure and use them in reporting
  • Identify the handoff of a task from one user role to another when the first user has completed it
  • Present a task through a business-rule trigger to a user role when a case status changes or meets certain conditions

Most auxiliary and administrative case types do not have as many business processes and business rules as standard case types, but many of them are still complicated and would benefit from having a system of record that every authorized participant can access and contribute to.

An additional benefit of a highly configurable CMS is the ability to manage continuous change in the business environment by being changing configuration using in-house staff as business needs change, rather than relying on the system developer or vendor. As CMSs evolve, configuration tools will become easier to use, enabling knowledge workers themselves—judges, clerks, administrative staff, and probation officers—constrained by IT governance processes, to change the CMS to meet their evolving needs (Swenson, 2012: 109).

The examples of auxiliary and administrative case types provided above illustrate many of the elements needed to be configured, so that the CMS can handle all case types. Participants in the case, data used to initiate an update, and the other elements of auxiliary and administrative case types need to be identified in a similar way as case elements are for standard cases (Matthias, 2010: 176).

  • Set up user interface appropriate to user function and scope of authority

Place data fields on screen for entry and update

Select search criteria per case type

Select alerts to appear when case or person results are displayed

  • Set up business rules appropriate to business processes as set by court policy
  • Set up ticklers that are triggered when a condition is met, and alerts (person-level and case-level) that appear at the top of the screen when person or case information is displayed

Ticklers: time period has elapsed

Person-status alerts: outstanding warrant, on probation, monetary balance owing, non-public/confidential information, need interpreter

Case-status alerts: case sealed, case inactive for bankruptcy

Courts with a highly configurable CMS that do not implement these other case types are missing a big opportunity.

Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.