Trends 2013-2016

A list of monthly Trends articles for August 2013 through October 2016 has been compiled.  See full article archive.


Courts Effectively Deliver Remote Self-Help Services

Stacey Marz, Director, Self-Help Services, Alaska State Court System

Many self-represented litigants are unable to go to the courthouse in person to conduct routine business. Many courts are now providing remote services, which benefit both litigants and court staff.

Residents of rural Alaska and urban Orange County, California share little in terms of their living environments. However, self-represented individuals from both areas face the same challenges to get information. They may not be able visit the court in-person because of challenges involving mobility, transportation, or child care, or they may be unable to take time off from work. Some courts have created solutions to serve the public and offer self-help information about court procedures and forms regardless of where they live.

The Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN), with funding from the State Justice Institute, released Serving Self-Represented Litigants Remotely: A Resource Guide. The Resource Guide provides options for courts interested in providing remote services to self-represented litigants instead of, or in addition to, in-person services. The Guide makes a convincing case that remote services should be part of any plan to provide access to justice. 

The Resource Guide contains detailed descriptions of the creative ways that some statewide and county-wide courts, which range from extremely rural to very urban, effectively serve their customers. While technology plays a part in providing remote services, it does not need to be complicated. All programs provide phone-based help, email, and detailed plain-language websites. Some programs use texting, chats, co-browsing, and videoconferencing to meet their customer’s needs. Regardless of the method, the goal is for people to access information from wherever they are and not have to physically go anywhere to get help. The Resource Guide is written for judges, court administrators, clerks of court, bar leaders, legal-aid directors, librarians, technologists, access-to-justice commissions, and those involved with access-to-justice expansion. 

Background

In 2015 the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators passed Resolution 5, urging “national organizations to develop tools and provide assistance to states in achieving the goal of 100 percent access [to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs] through a continuum of meaningful and appropriate services.” The Resource Guide recognizes that providing remote delivery of self-help services is an asset to meeting the goal of providing 100 percent access. “Remote services” refer to any means of providing information or assistance to a self-represented litigant, or a non-litigant who is seeking information about a legal problem, other than through face-to-face interaction with someone at a courthouse or at the physical location of legal services, a library, an advocacy group, or other entity. 

To develop the Resource Guide, SRLN studied state-level programs in Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, and Utah and county-level programs in Butte, Lake, Tehama, and Orange counties in California. Idaho and Montana were also chosen for the programmatic efforts of Idaho Legal Aid Services and the Montana Legal Services Association. The Resource Guide contains detailed descriptions of the programs and technology in all these jurisdictions at the time the study was conducted. There are also detailed discussions about how each jurisdiction addresses 14 business-process issues:

1. scope of its remote-service delivery program

2. audiences it serves (e.g., in addition to self-represented litigants, whether it serves judges, court staff, lawyers, librarians, and other community partners)

3. program goals  

4. remote-delivery methods supported (e.g., phone, email, chat, text, videoconference)

5. complexity of interactions handled

6. features of its telephone services

7. supporting services (website, forms, etc.)

8. performance measures and data collection

9. average interaction time

10. interactions per FTE

11. how it works with limited-English-proficient customers

12. staff development

13. collaborative relationships with other service providers

14. collaborative relationships within the court system to improve court processes

In addition, the study produced spreadsheets of program attributes for each site and full data analyses of the information gathered in most of the sites from users of its remote services.

Findings

In addition to information about specific programs, the Resource Guide includes overall findings about the delivery of remote self-help services. 

Effective and Efficient

Delivery of services using telephone and Internet-based technologies (e.g., email, chat, text messaging) is an effective and efficient means of providing information and assistance to self-represented litigants. It should be a part of the service-delivery strategy of every entity (courts, the bar, legal aid, libraries, and other social-service entities) interacting with self-represented litigants and individuals seeking legal information.

  • Much of the public expects courts, legal services, and the bar to engage with them using these technologies. When surveyed, users in large majorities did not desire in-person options.
  • Services that do not require the public to visit a physical building are advantageous in terms of time, convenience, and cost savings both for self-represented litigants and for the organizations that serve them. Users appreciate the anonymity of not being seen in the courthouse in small towns and rural communities.
  • Remote-service delivery makes sense in urban as well as rural settings, especially for people with mobility and transportation challenges and other barriers that make it difficult to go to the courthouse.
  • Use of multiple remote services (e.g., telephone, email, live chat, video conferencing, and text messaging) is advantageous to the service provider and the user by providing options for accessing the service. All programs provide telephone-based services, as well as comprehensive information and forms through a plain-language website. 
  • Technology increases the options available to meet the needs of limited-English-proficient customers—through the use of call-center systems to route calls to bilingual staff, telephonic interpreter services, and videoconferencing with a bilingual service provider.
  • Most remote-service court users surveyed in the study would not have preferred a different service method; most who preferred another method would have chosen a different remote-service method—not a face-to-face method.
  • Studies in two of the participating courts showed that persons for whom documents were created using a remote-services method were highly likely to obtain a determination on the merits—and obtain the relief they were seeking—if they filed the document.

Cost Savings

Remote delivery can save staff resources and costs and also benefit customers.

Service providers save resources by:

  • centralizing staffing with a high level of expertise assembled in a single location;
  • having shorter staff/customer interaction times;
  • enabling staff to establish boundaries for remote conversations, which is easier than for in-person interactions;
  • having less staff burnout and turnover;
  • reducing facilities and security costs because the public does not need to be physically accommodated where the service is provided; and
  • using underutilized staff in remote locations to provide remote self-help services.

Customers benefit by:

  • not having to go anywhere, saving time and costs for transportation, parking, child care, and missed work;
  • being able to access services more hours per week because services can be delivered outside of regular business hours; 
  • having less stressful interactions with self-help staff (if a customer forgets to ask a question, he or she can re-contact the service without going back to the courthouse); and
  • receiving right-sized delivery of help in a way that in-person services cannot because visiting a courthouse involves travel costs and time, and often long waits for service (the best example is seeking an answer to a simple, straightforward question where the cost of a face-to-face visit is grossly disproportionate to the service provided).

Remote Services Can Be Better than Face-to-Face Services

Remote-service delivery offers benefits that walk-in programs cannot, or are challenged to, provide.

  • Court users expect instant access to information and assistance using a phone or computer from wherever they are located, which is only possible from a remote-service-delivery model.
  • Remote services offer the customer a greater degree of privacy.
  • Service providers can bring together their most experienced staff to provide the highest quality service. Having remote services staff co-located, or centrally managed facilitates, provides service standardization and quality not possible when staff are widely dispersed and work for different entities and managers.
  • Remote services may offer extended hours beyond the court’s traditional work day, making accessing the service more convenient for customers. It is easier to extend the hours of a relatively small group of staffers compared to keeping a courthouse open to the public.
  • Remote services staff often develop specialized materials to improve their own services and to enhance the materials available to the public, including forms, canned email and text responses, and short, focused videos.
  • Centralized, statewide remote self-help services programs give managers an optimal vantage point from which to recommend ways to simplify court procedures, as they observe local practices and can easily compare and contrast to identify the most effective and efficient options.

Powerful Catalyst for Developing Provider Networks

Some users will not be able to get their needs met through only remote mechanisms. The programs studied are remarkably inventive in creating and maintaining relationships with organizations and individuals to whom users can turn for supplemental assistance. An indispensable aspect of these relationships is that programs make careful referrals to both legal and non-legal providers. Referrals to legal services, particularly to lawyers providing limited-scope representation, is a critical outreach activity, but like other referrals requires the exercise of judgment by remote-service staff.

Source of Ideas to Improve Court Operations

Remote-service providers have an excellent opportunity to learn about their users’ needs because of the volume, interactivity, and data analytics produced by remote service. This can be from customer’s online behaviors or through the staff who can offer a candid and constructive view of the litigant’s voice and perspective. High-performing courts take advantage of this data and expertise to learn what parts of the legal process create the greatest obstacles for self-represented litigants and to modify their processes to remove them. Several remote-services programs have assisted their courts to:

  • improve forms;
  • develop proactive case management processes that actively direct self-represented litigants through the court process;
  • create triage-screening processes, including resolution options and services for the triage system;
  • create simplified court procedures designed for self-represented litigants; and
  • provide expedited resolution calendars that obviate the need for contested hearings.

Legal Information and Legal Advice

All study sites, except Maryland, provide legal information instead of legal advice. They provide substantive and procedural information, but do not provide strategic or tactical advice. They explain how to bring matters to the court’s attention but do not opine about the efficacy or outcome of bringing a matter to the court.

Maryland departs from this practice because self-help services are provided under a contract with Maryland Legal Services, whose self-help attorneys located in a court facility provide brief legal advice. The advice offered does not include advocacy on behalf of the client in the form of an interaction with the other party, an agency, or a third party, or if there is a known conflict. Maryland adopted a modified version of the comment to ABA Model Rule 6.5 to support this practice (see Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 19-306.5).

Program Metrics Vary Based on Different Approaches

The Resource Guide includes information on some program metrics. The average telephone call length varies among the programs, with a high of seventeen-and-a-half minutes and a low of two-and-a-half minutes. The number of clients served annually per FTE varies from almost 6,000 to fewer than 1,500. The time differences appear to be attributed to differing approaches of what the program is trying to accomplish. Shorter call times reflect a service that simply answers questions. Longer times reflect a service that attempts to answer all relevant questions and anticipates potential issues and next steps. When the number of persons served each year is compared with the state’s adult population, all four statewide programs show a remarkable outreach. The Alaska and Utah programs serve customers equivalent to over 1 percent of the state’s adult population each year. Maryland and Minnesota, with much larger populations, serve customers equivalent to roughly one-half of 1 percent of their state’s adult population annually.

Conclusion

The SRLN Resource Guide finds that it is a best practice to have remote services in establishing or expanding services to self-represented litigants, tailored to the jurisdiction and audience to be served. No matter if someone lives hundreds of miles from the nearest courthouse or across the street, the Guide is the sole publication that offers tools to create remote self-help services that improve access to justice.


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.