Technology Standards White Paper

The National Consortium On State Court Automation Standards - A White Paper

Author: Kenneth R. Palmer (1946-2001)

An Overview

This white paper is to introduce the work of the COSCA/NACM Joint Technology Committee and the National Consortium on State Court Automation Standards that is directed at developing national standards for court case management information systems (CMIS).

Why do we need standards?

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) estimates that, collectively, courts spend well in excess of $500 million annually on information technology. These dollars are committed for planning new automated applications, specifying their requirements, purchasing hardware, developing or procuring software, installing new systems, training users how to operate them, and supporting them in operation. Many of those systems capably perform the functions they were designed to accomplish. However, all too often courts have been disappointed by their return on the time, effort and expense required to develop, procure and implement automated case management systems.

At present there are no generally accepted guidelines or standards court officials may use to evaluate their existing systems, upgrade those systems or develop/procure new systems. As a result, they find themselves confronting difficult issues of system reengineering, design and implementation with little means for drawing on the experiences and lessons learned by other courts. Resolution of the issues becomes an expensive, time-consuming process, which is often heavily dependent on vendors for success. Moreover, the product is likely to be highly idiosyncratic to the court that developed it, complicating the inevitable revisions that will need to be made over time, and rendering more difficult efforts to meet the growing need to share information with other courts and with local, state and federal justice related agencies.

This excessive parochialism means that most courts developing a new case management application or system spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for general systems design and requirements analysis. This process has negative effects on vendors, too. It greatly increases their costs, because they must separately analyze every court's requirements and build or modify their products to the order of each customer.

Don't we already have "standards"?

"Standards" have been developed or are under development in a number of discrete areas related to court information systems. Certainly, a variety of technical standards have emerged in recent years in such areas as communications, electronic filing and the Internet. While it is important for courts to consider these standards in their efforts to enhance or upgrade their automated systems, such standards become outdated quickly as technologies change or new technologies emerge. Moreover, they are often market and industry driven and not specific to the functional information needs of courts.

A variety of reporting standards have been developed which provide courts with guidance on selected aspects of court automation. Examples include:

  1. The Associated Credit Bureau Civil Judgement Standards being finalized under the auspices of the COSCA/NACM Joint Technology Committee
  2. Criminal disposition reporting standards developed by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and state criminal history repositories.
  3. Other federal reporting requirements relating to domestic violence, child support, etc.
  4. The reporting requirements of the National Court Statistics Project

These reporting standards deal with discrete functions or types of information, rather than the full range of functionality that should be provided through a court case management information system. Moreover, some of the standards promulgated in response to federal acts or in agency directives conflict with the requirements of other federal entities, or state reporting needs, thereby complicating the system design process for courts.

Some of these conflicts manifest in data element standards. Data element standards may be dictated at the federal level, developed at the state level (for statewide reporting or where a common statewide case management system exists), or unique to a local court. Because data element standards, in the form of definitions and coding structures, vary according to a variety of jurisdictional considerations (state statutes, rules of procedure and local case processing policies and practices), they are not easily applied across state or, sometimes, even local boundaries.

In sum, neither existing technical, reporting and data element standards nor those under development can be expected to provide a useful starting point or comprehensive framework for assessing system requirements for courts seeking to upgrade or replace their existing systems.

What kind of standards are needed?

In 1988 the National Center for State Courts received funding from the State Justice Institute for the Court Automation Performance Standards (CAPS) project. The resulting monograph, entitled Planning, Acquiring, and Implementation Court Automation, reported that the project

began as an attempt to define standards for the content, structure and functioning of automated court case management information systems. Given the tremendous diversity of the nation's state and local courts, the project's early goals were too ambitious for available resources. Later refinements to the objectives focused the project on the automation process, rather than the product. Nonetheless, to build on the work of this volume, the broader areas of defining standards for the content of these systems should be addressed.

It is the definition of the "content" of automated court case management information systems, in terms of functional requirements or standards, that must be developed at this time. A comprehensive set of functional standards is needed, which defines the capabilities of and information to be produced by case management information systems, in terms of:

  1. The operational court and case management functions and subfunctions which should be supported and made more efficient by the software applications, e.g., case initiation, indexing, docketing, record keeping, scheduling, document generation (notices, summons, forms, etc.), calendar management, hearings, accounting, state and federal reporting, management reporting.
  2. The general types of data and data sets that should be included in the system (not specific data element definitions or coding structures).
  3. The manner in which the application should support the coordination or integration of various functions and sub-functions performed by court personnel.
  4. The nature of integration of applications software for one case type or module with the applications for others (for instance, linking the systems for criminal, family law and civil to ensure coordinated handling of cases involving domestic violence).
  5. Necessary external interfaces or levels of integration, within and outside of the court system, e.g., the appellate courts; reporting to the Supreme Court/Judicial Council or other state entities; and integration with prosecution, defense, corrections, juvenile justice, child support or protective services authorities; and providing access to the public.
  6. The manner in which the CMIS application should support/be integrated with new technologies such as electronic filing, document management, imaging, Internet/Intranet, video, and teleconferencing, electronic funds transfer, voice response systems, kiosks and courtroom technology.

In sum, the functional standards specify what a court case management information system must be able to do. It is noted that some functions cut across case types (e.g., monitoring speedy trial rule dates for criminal cases). In order to ensure that the system comprehensively meets a court's needs, each function must be examined separately for each case type. For instance, calendaring of traffic cases requires a uniquely sophisticated interface with police officer duty schedules - a feature not needed for felony trial calendaring in general jurisdiction trial court.

Thus, a separate set of standards must be developed for each general case type: civil; criminal; juvenile; family law; probate (including guardianship and mental health); and traffic. Figure 1 sets forth in matrix form the conceptual framework for how the functional standards will be developed for each application or module of a case management information system. Care will also be given to the interdependence of the several modules.

How will these functional standards benefit the state and local courts?

  • They will provide thorough specifications for a full range of the functional capabilities and features deemed desirable in case management information systems based on state of the art systems. The standards should substantially reduce the cost and time associated with the systems design and requirements analysis phases of court automation projects. They are intended to serve as a framework for evaluating existing systems/applications and identifying missing functional components or less than complete components, for purposes of planning needed upgrades or acquiring new systems.
  • They may serve as a starting point for the definition of data standards for those courts that do not already have them.
  • They will provide guidelines for improved sharing of data with other courts and justice agencies.
  • They may guide the incorporation of new technologies in existing or planned systems.
  • They may be used as input for reexamining and reengineering existing business processes, thereby contributing to increased efficiency in court operations.
  • They will provide vendors with consensus specifications that may be incorporated in their products. This should yield software products that are more functional and universally beneficial. It should also reduce vendor costs and, therefore, the cost of products for the consumer. It may also enable them to invest more dollars in research and development, for the further improvement of such products.

What has been accomplished to date and what is the overall timetable?

The initial standards development work has focused on civil case management information systems. This effort is being used to define and test the process that will guide development of the standards for the other modules. The documentation of the civil standards will also provide a template for the organization and definition of the six sets of functional standards, allowing that some variation may be required from one to the next.

Development of the civil standards began in January of 1999, and is scheduled for completion mid-fall. Several drafts of the standards have been produced to date. A copy of the June draft is attached to illustrate the type of work product that is contemplated. Another draft, based on a July meeting of project staff, will be available in early August.

Representatives of the Steering Committee on Court Automation Standards and National Center for State Courts are in negotiations with the Department of Justice to obtain federal grant funds which would permit work to begin on standards for the criminal module and, perhaps, other modules by mid-fall. It is contemplated that the development cycles for criminal, juvenile, family, probate and traffic will range between nine and fifteenth months each. The Consortium plans, contingent upon available resources, to undertake development on several modules concurrently, to compress the overall development period to between two and one half years and three years.

What process is being used to develop the standards and who develops them?

The standards development process is designed to take advantage of work already completed by those who have implemented some of the better case management information systems at the state and local levels. Specifications on those systems, as well as functional requirements in recent, well-developed RFPs, are reviewed and synthesized into a preliminary draft of functional standards for each module. Other input to this document includes a review of related technical or reporting standards, various vendor systems and specifications which have guided the effective integration of systems among justice system partners in selected jurisdictions (see Figure 2).

The draft standards are then refined through a series of reviews by "expert"" field representatives who comprise a Joint Systems Development Team (JSDT). The JSDT members include experienced operations and technical staff from selected state and local courts. The reviews include the opportunity to provide written comments on draft standards as well as input through face-to-face meetings. Toward the end of the development process a meeting will be held to gain the perspective of vendors, which will involve some of the JSDT members, as well. Final drafts of the standards will be publicized on the Internet and circulated as requested, for additional input, before publication and final distribution. At several stages of the process the draft standards are reviewed by the Steering Committee. Ultimately, the COSCA/NACM Joint Technology Committee will adopt them.

The technology staff of the National Center coordinates the development work for each module for State Courts. As has been done with the civil standards, the substantive work of reviewing and synthesizing documentation from existing systems, RFPs, and other sources, will be contracted to qualified consultants. The NCSC staff and consultants will work closely with the JSDT to refine the standards.

As the standards are intended to be dynamic, they will be scheduled for regular review, supplementation, and update, which will be the responsibility of the NCSC staff, under the direction of the Steering Committee.

What is the Consortium and how is it organized?

The National Consortium on State Court Automation Standards, which is patterned after the successful Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification, is the mechanism by which the development of functional standards will be both financed and guided. It is comprised of representatives of those state and local courts that choose to make either a financial or in-kind contribution to the successful implementation of the project. The co-chairs of the COSCA/NACM Joint Technology Committee appointed the Steering Committee for the Consortium.

The Steering Committee sets policy directions and project objectives for the standards development process, consistent with the strategic agenda of the COSCA/NACM Joint Technology Committee. It is responsible for planning and orchestrating work on the individual modules in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts, and establishing procedures for their dissemination and future update of the standards. The Steering Committee is also charged with developing a funding plan, marketing the overall project, soliciting cash as well as in-kind contributions from interested state and local courts, and pursuing grant funds for the development and dissemination of the standards. The State of Texas made the initial contribution to the Consortium, which has underwritten much of the work on the civil module. Three other states have made cash contributions since, and a number of states have indicated willingness or commitment to contribute funds for the Consortium in the near future.

Membership in the Consortium for those jurisdictions making financial contributions is consummated via agreement between the participating state or local court and the National Center for State Courts. The National Center is currently in the process of developing a general agreement that can be customized to each participating jurisdiction.

How will the standards development process be funded and how much will it cost?

The funds necessary to finance the project will be solicited from or available through three separate sources.

  1. Contributions by state and local courts.
    Contributions may be in cash or in-kind. Cash contributions from states to date are approaching $200,000. Commitments from other states are expected to produce additional funds in the near future.
  2. Grant resources.
    As stated earlier, negotiations are under way with the Department of Justice for funds that would underwrite the costs of at least the criminal and juvenile applications, if not additional applications requiring integration with those modules. The vast majority of the costs for developing the functional standards for the six modules will be underwritten through grant-related resources where they can be identified. Further, the State Justice Institute has indicated a willingness to fund the publication and distribution of the standards, once developed.
  3. The National Center for State Courts.
    Initially, the costs for staff and other resources devoted to the project will be underwritten through grant resources or, in certain instances, financial contributions to the Consortium by various state and local courts. Eventually, it is contemplated that the maintenance and update of the standards will be undertaken by the National Center's staff as an ongoing responsibility, to be supplemented where possible by future grants.

The overall budget for the administrative oversight, development efforts for six modules, and publication and dissemination is estimated to be in the range of $1.0 to 1.3 million.

Note: We are forever indebted to Kenneth R. Palmer for his effort in creating the Consortium and obtaining resources for its work.