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12/6/2016: Functional Court Software is Essential to Access-to-Justice

The computer systems used by our court systems are outdated and broken. They're hard to use, poorly designed, and in many places simply non-existent. These systems are so bad they're causing case outcomes to be wrongfully recorded and even resulting in wrongful arrests.

Access to justice is not just access to a minimally functioning court system. It’s access to a court system that is also just, transparent, and user-friendly. For a court system to be just it must be transparent. For it to be transparent it must be user-friendly. For too long our third branch of government has functioned as if in secret - placing the records of its doings and pronouncements (which directly affect those living under its jurisdiction) in places inaccessible to the average person, behind an online paywall, or at best behind a computer system so opaque it may as well not exist. We cannot allow our courts to do digital equivalent of putting their records “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

So why are court systems so far behind the curve? Much of it has to do with two things: budget constraints and a lack of will and understanding on the part of clerks of courts and judges. Most court systems are underfunded, and as a result they are often forced to make the false choice between paying enough personnel to make their courtrooms function on a day-to-day basis, and upgrading their aging computer systems. Case in point:

"The crisis comes as the Alameda County Superior Court copes with a $5 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year. Finke says he’s hoping the clerk staff will catch up with the backlog of criminal case data that needs to be entered into Odyssey by the end of December, when the courts, except Wiley Manual in Oakland, will be closed to the public and some court staff is taking voluntary furloughs."

While a five million dollar shortfall is shocking to anyone not familiar with court system budgets1, this phrase is just as important: “the backlog of criminal case data that needs to be entered into Odyssey.” In order to update their internal case management and external case access system, the clerk’s employees must enter what happens each day in court by hand, in addition to entering the details of past cases. This means that the system (one in which a single typo can mean a person is wrongfully arrested and sits in jail until things are sorted out) invites human input errors by design. Considering that the Odyssey system is used in courts nation-wide, this problem isn’t isolated to one cash-strapped court system; it’s endemic to every court system, cash-strapped or not.

Consider this along with the shocking statistic that, on average, one party goes without a lawyer in 70% of civil cases. A lawyer’s role is in great part as an expert guide through the ins and outs of the byzantine court system. In our current set-up, unrepresented parties are not only at a distinct disadvantage, they also put a great strain on judges, clerks, and administrative personnel who have to deal with irregular and incorrect pleadings and filings. A dysfunctional court computer system compounds errors and confusion. Not only does it invite internal errors through wrong information, it creates confusion for pro se parties faced with an unusable interface and clerks who refuse to assist them because doing so would potentially be the unlicensed practice of law.

There is a way out of this mess, but it won’t be easy. Many of our court systems are funded through court fines and fees, which is the equivalent of a so-called "sin tax."2 Not only must courts be fully funded, but courts and judges must be open to adopting technological solutions. There must also be more open-source development of case management software tailored to court systems. Open reccords laws need to be adopted in every state, along with a commitment to make non-confidential court records public and easily accessible online.

Will these things happen? I hate to say it, but probably not. The court system has been ignored and underfunded for so long by state governments that it's become the norm.


Footnotes:

1. Court budget cuts are, to put it mildly, a wide-ranging problem. See:

a.Cutbacks in California court system produce long lines, short tempers.

b. Proposed budget crisis could devastate judicial system

c. Budget cuts imperil NKY drug courts

d. Orleans Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell takes city to court again in budget dispute

e. Yakima County Clerk's Office in financial crisis

f. State’s budget woes will have drastic effect on courts, N.M. judges say

g. Record-high state budget neglects courts

h. State's court clerks slash services, personnel, to deal with budget cuts

2. "Sin taxes" are designed to punish the behavior (smoking) though economics. But imagine if all funding for cancer research depended on taxes on cigarettes. Once smoking is on the decline, there's not enough money to go around for research on brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, etc. That's what we're doing to our court system through this type of funding mechanism.

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