Connecticut Judicial Branch Courthouse Observation Team

Heather Nann Collins, Court Planner, Connecticut Judicial Branch

What kind of service is the public receiving inside Connecticut’s cour thouses? The Courthouse Observation Team helps judges and court staff to improve their work with the public.

Connecticut Judicial Branch marshals provide security in four dozen courthouses and facilities and screen more than seven million people annually for weapons and other contraband. The judicial branch’s Jury Administration takes more than 10,000 phone calls per month, and the Court Service Center and Public Information Desk staff members provide assistance to more than 300,000 people each year.

While that is a lot of interaction between branch staff and the public, it represents only a fraction of the services provided annually, in person and over the phone, to litigants, defendants, the bar, jurors, victims of crimes, the media, visiting school groups, curious court watchers, and users of our law libraries. Each of those exchanges is an opportunity for the judicial branch to help ensure that all people have access to justice.

As a result of the judicial branch’s “Strategic Plan,” dozens of initiatives were undertaken to support our goals of increasing access to justice, improving the delivery of services, responding to changing demographics, collaborating with stakeholders, and ensuring accountability to all. One of those initiatives, the Courthouse Observation Team, supports all of those goals.

Similar to “secret shopper” programs used by retailers to measure customer satisfaction, the Courthouse Observation Team, or COT, uses volunteer branch staff members to conduct anonymous assessments of the delivery of services to the public by other branch staff.

COT does not evaluate judicial performance or judges, as court administrators already have a Judicial Performance Evaluation Program for the bench. Instead, COT observations review processes and policies at work on the frontline: from conducting a security screening properly at the front door of a courthouse; to providing correct information on how to obtain an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or secure the services of a foreign language interpreter; to ensuring the accuracy of online driving directions or the ease of navigating buildings through the use of posted signage; to improving the availability of current and accurate printed information; to making sure bathrooms and other public areas are clean.

When the program was piloted in 2008, there was some concern from staff, especially after a statewide legal publication ran a story with a headline about “spies” in courthouses. That, court leaders say, was never the intention of COT. Rather, by having volunteer staff dress casually as with members of the public, leaving their branch ID cards at home, and acting as though they have little or no knowledge about what should occur, the program gives court leaders and managers a more authentic evaluation of stakeholder satisfaction. COT focuses on what Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers has referred to as common courtesy in public service.

“I was a little concerned that staff would say we were spying on them, but what we found was that we were doing many things very well, and the staff appreciated that positive feedback,” Chief Justice Rogers says. “And with regard to the changes that we could make, they were very willing to do that.”

Observations are not random; COT members are provided with data-collection sheets developed by the Superior Court Operations Division’s Accreditation and Audit Unit in concert with the Office of the Chief Court Administrator. Data sheets include specific questions and, in some cases, provide specific scenarios for the observer to pose to staff. This ensures that each area is assessed uniformly—comparing apples to apples, and not apples to oranges.  

It also provides the review team and, ultimately, the judicial district’s administrative judge, court operations directors, and chief clerks with detailed information about areas that are successful and other areas that might need a protocol or policy refresher. For example, the data-collection sheet used in a judicial district courthouse asks the observers to evaluate:

  • Directions: Were the directions to the courthouse accurate? Were directions for parking provided? Were you able to locate the entrance to the courthouse from the parking area?
  • Facilities: Were the exterior and interior of the building free of litter/trash? Were trash receptacles available for public use? Were the exterior and interior of the building in good condition (lobby, elevators, rest rooms, etc.)? Was the courthouse open at 8:30 a.m.?
  • Signage/Ease of Navigating Building: Was the entrance to the courthouse clearly marked? Was the handicapped access clearly marked? Was the signage adequate to locate the clerk’s office, jury assembly room, victim services advocate, court service center/public information desk, and law library?
  • Judicial Marshals: Was the wait at the metal detector reasonable (taking into account the time of day and number of individuals entering the courthouse)? Did the marshals give directions on metal detector procedures? Was there a judicial marshal supervisor or lead judicial marshal at the metal detector when you entered the building? Were the marshals eating or drinking at the metal detector? Did the marshals allow you to bring in your laptop, cellphone, or camera? Did the marshal allow you to bring in a beverage? Did the marshal allow you to wear a hat in the courthouse? Did the marshals appear neat and clean? Were the marshals wearing nametags? Were the marshals courteous and professional? If you asked a marshal for help/information, did the marshal listen to your request and respond appropriately? Did the marshals treat other court visitors appropriately?
  • Clerk’s Office: Did the office appear neat/uncluttered? Did you observe a sign/poster for Language Line Interpretation Service Available? Were staff members eating at their desks? Was the staff’s appearance appropriate for the job, work setting, and personal safety? Did a staff member acknowledge you in a timely manner (taking into account the time of day and number of individuals conducting business at the office)? Did a staff member listen to your request and give appropriate responses to procedural/informational questions? Was the staff member courteous and professional? Were you able to complete your business in a timely manner? After completing your business/transaction, did the staff member ask you if there was anything else they could help you with? Were other court visitors treated appropriately? Did you ask to see a court file? What questions did you ask about the file? What was the clerk’s response to your questions? What information about the file did the clerk give you?
  • COT members also conduct telephone interactions targeting specific areas. For example, the branch recently chose to evaluate whether clerk’s offices were knowledgeable about how to appropriately assist telephone callers seeking accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A handful of COT members were given the telephone scenarios, like the one below, to use and answer a series of observation questions:
  • Scenario to be posed by observer: I have to come to court and I am extremely anxious. Can I bring my service dog? He is a toy Chihuahua and only weighs four pounds. He doesn’t even bark. Can I bring my dog to court?”  Note: There are only two questions the clerk may ask: is the animal required because of a disability, and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. These questions determine if the dog is a service dog, which is allowed in the courthouse, or a comfort dog, which is not. If it is determined that the dog is a comfort dog, the correct answer is no. The clerk may refer to the ADA contact.
  • Questions: Did the clerk refer you to the ADA contact (every site has at least one)? Did the clerk refer you to the ADA Web site? (If the clerk could answer the questions, this may not be necessary.) Was your call answered in a timely manner? Please note how many rings. Did the staff member answer the phone in a courteous and professional manner? Did the staff member listen to your request and give you appropriate responses to your questions? Did the staff member ask you if you needed any further assistance before hanging up?

While all data sheets allow observers to record “yes,” “no,” or “not applicable” answers, there is also space for comments on each question and scenario, allowing the COT member to expand on his or her experiences.

In fact, the commentary section is often where the most detailed information is found, and it gives reviewers, including Chief Justice Rogers, Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, Deputy Chief Court Administrator Judge Elliot N. Solomon, Superior Court Operations Executive Director Atty. Joseph D. D’Alesio, and Accreditation and Audit Unit Program Manager Jamey L. Harris, a keener sense of the gray area between “yes” and “no.”

The idea behind COT, Chief Justice Rogers notes, is to support accountability to the public by helping to ensure that each person is treated fairly and respectfully with professionalism and integrity, which are the core values of the judicial branch. 

Despite the unease of some managers during COT’s launch, the program was an instant success in that it gave judges and administrators an “insiders” look—albeit a microscopic view—into daily, common courthouse interactions as experienced by the public. The results of the pilot, which were mostly positive, were dissected and in January 2009 shared with the administrative judges in all 13 judicial districts. After reviewing the data, court administrators determined that observations should be expanded to include interactions both in person and on the telephone and in languages other than English.

The second round of observations, in 2009, took place in a different judicial district and the number of team members was increased to expand the validity of the data. That summer, the chief justice and chief and deputy chief court administrators held a “debriefing” with COT members at the supreme court. Observers reported that nine out of ten times, their experiences were positive; the 10 percent that were not were generally related to unpleasant attitudes or with not being provided enough information by staff. The observations tended to jibe with what the judges had been hearing over the years, anecdotally, from members of the bar. When enough data had been collected, administrators began sharing the results with directors and supervisors, which led to the development of specific action plans to address deficits.

Offices or units where procedures have been flagged more than twice by observers for not meeting protocol, or for failing to follow through on corrective action plans, may be subject to spot-check observations. It has been rare that repeat observations record the same problems in the same place or that those problems have remained even after spot checks, but it has happened. In those cases, the supervisor of the noncompliant program or staff is held to account for failing to update their employees on policies, procedures, and positive public service.

Reaction to the program has been generally positive because administrators determined that anonymity would not be limited to COT members but extended to observed staff, too.  That means that employees observed failing to follow policies and procedures, or who are impolite to the observer or members of the public, are not singled out for punishment or training. Instead, the managers and supervisors of the observed office must share the results with all staff and, when appropriate, reiterate the correct policies and model appropriate customer service.

The strategic plan’s accountability goal provides that the judicial branch “will ensure a judicial system where all participants can expect and experience clear, fair and consistent justice from an independent and impartial judiciary.” The judicial branch considers COT an excellent investment of staff time when the public is treated fairly. When that does not happen, our governor and legislature will surely hear of it. The judicial branch, by being proactive, addressing shortcomings, and promoting a “How can I help you?” culture, is increasing the public’s trust.

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.