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Clara: New Mexico’s virtual court receptionist

August 17, 2020

While not everyone who enters a courthouse interacts with a judge, they almost always interact with court staff. Now, the First Judicial District Court of New Mexico is adding a virtual receptionist called Clara. Clara is an avatar equipped with artificial intelligence to help visitors navigate the courthouse, obtain forms, and provide basic information to Santa Fe court users.

Installed in January 2020, Clara's technology is based on similar systems used for museum exhibits and started as an online assistant. The idea for Clara came from Paula Couselo-Findikoglu, Senior Statewide Program Manager of the Administrative Office of the Court’s Language Access Services. Couselo-Findikoglu developed Clara with assistance from the University of New Mexico Law School students.

Clara speaks, writes, and understands English, but soon will be able to speak Spanish, Navajo, and Vietnamese. Clara also allows connections to the clerk’s office to provide a remote interpreter for ASL or Spanish as needed. While currently used on a large flat-screen display in the Santa Fe Courthouse, the technology can be installed in other less expensive devices and could be available to other state courts in languages appropriate for their customer populations.

Since the onset of COVID, Clara was modified for the new reality of the pandemic. Users no longer have to touch the screen to activate Clara; court visitors can wave at the screen to activate her. But don't worry about the lack of human interaction; Clara's developers indicated this program tool is not intended to completely replace interactions with court employees. That said, kiosks like Clara save time for staff and customers by providing simple and frequently requested information in accessible formats.

Kiosks like Clara are not limited to just Santa Fe; similar programs have been developed in other courts over the years. Recent NCSC research in this area is focused on similar programs in Lake County, Illinois, and Harris County, Texas. Danielle Hirsch, a principal court management consultant who leads NCSC’s Justice for All initiative, expressed her view recently that especially in a pandemic and post-pandemic America “I think the kiosks are a wave of the future and a sign of something proactive.” Kiosks were just one of the elements mentioned in Hirsch's recent publication Coming to Court for Self-Help During COVID- 19: Six Ways to Keep Court Users and Staff Safe.

Tell us how your court is doing to provide kiosks and/or AI technologies.  Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences.

For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.