January 26, 2023
Making ‘Justice for All’ a Reality
A state judicial system simplified court access by revamping its application environment.
THE IDEAL OF EQUAL JUSTICE under the law is a cornerstone of American democracy. But those who can’t access the courts can’t seek justice, and increasingly, tech is crucial to providing that access.
When officials at one state judiciary wanted to modernize applications to help citizens navigate the legal process, they turned to Sirius, a CDW company, for help.
“The customer’s motivation was providing access to justice for all,” says David Russell, a senior client executive at Sirius. “Officials talked about citizens who live in remote corners of the state, as well as people who are representing themselves pro se. The leaders in the judiciary system wanted those people to have the same access to justice as people with more money, more education and more connections.”
Solution architects helped the state to aggressively accelerate digital transformation within its courts, leading to a dramatically simplified technology environment that allows citizens to initiate legal processes and traverse the often unfamiliar terrain of the legal system.
“What they have in place now is leading-edge,” Russell says. “Officials in other states are watching what they’re doing, and they hope to become the model for other court systems around the country.”
They wanted to get this information to people electronically and digitize their processes.
—Dan Jensen, Senior Client Executive, Sirius
Assessing the Existing Environment
The state judicial system in question is made up of a number of courts and administrative bodies. These include a supreme court and court of appeals; district, juvenile and justice courts; a judicial council; and an administrative office of the court. Technology leaders at the judicial system had already worked with Sirius on more limited projects that involved migrating a set of applications and a database, and they had talked for some time about completely overhauling and expanding their applications to provide a more seamless and comprehensive experience to citizens.
But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that finally spurred officials to take action.
“The pandemic provided extra motivation,” says Dan Jensen, a senior client executive at Sirius. “They wanted to get this information to people electronically and digitize their processes. The courts were often closed during the pandemic, and they couldn’t just tell people to come in and file something. They needed to make their information and systems available to people at home, so the pandemic was really an accelerant for the project.”
At the time, the state judiciary relied on paper-based procedures to initiate, process and resolve the bulk of court cases. This process was especially difficult for pro se filers and litigants who lacked experience with the court system, and who may have had to travel and take time off from work to submit paper documents in person and make appearances before judges. The judicial system did have some online tools, but an initial assessment found that these were largely inadequate to meet citizens’ needs.
“There was an online system, but it was very cumbersome to navigate,” Russell says. “There were some apps to help with legal representation and small claims, but they were limited. Citizens typically needed to fill out the forms online and then print them off and mail them in. And many of these processes weren’t even available by mail, so people had to actually go in front of a judge in person to submit a basic filing. The existing systems were very clunky and inadequate, and they weren’t complete.”
Another problem was that the systems that did exist were not built to handle increased use over time. “Their legacy architecture was limited in scalability,” says Greg Peters, a senior solutions architect with Sirius.
The percentage of Texas attorneys who said remote hearings are effective
Source: National Center for State Courts, “The Use of Remote Hearings in Texas State Courts: The Impact on Judicial Workload,” December 2021
Architecting a Solution
Using a design-first approach with an open-source code generator, solution architects bridged gaps between existing applications. Next, they designed and built new custom applications and incorporated them into the environment.
“With the legacy applications, we did a lot of enhancements, including responsive support,” says Shiva Perumalsamy, the chief architect on the project. “Those applications now have a much better user experience. We also used a tool to enable continuous integration/continuous delivery. And another big change was converting the applications into REST-based services for easy consumption and easy maintenance.”
The first phase of the transformation project allowed the judiciary to achieve its goal of moving away from paper documents and in-person appearances in favor of electronic filing systems. Later phases of the project included creating virtual hearing platforms and other tools. Architects also created an online dashboard that allows judicial assistants to review and file digital documents, which reduced the complexity of document processing.
Among other tools, architects enhanced the state’s MyCase application. “We increased the ability for folks to get through the registration process and created a smoother user experience,” says Whitney Gregory, a senior consultant who acted as a business analyst on the project. Solution architects also improved the mobile experience for citizens.
“Officials at the judiciary understood that many people don’t have desktop computers, and they’ll be accessing this information using their mobile devices,” Gregory says. “But a lot of their systems weren’t very responsive or mobile-friendly. So, that was one of our big pushes.”
Sirius architects containerized applications using tools from Red Hat and implemented software to introduce automation into the system. Sirius can establish similar electronic filing systems and data dashboards for all state and local government agencies.
Benefits of Virtual Courtrooms
A few years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court established the COVID-19 Continuity of Court Operations During a Public Health Emergency Workgroup. The workgroup surveyed Arizona’s courts to discover how technology-based platforms affected court services when responding parties were unable to appear in person due to shuttered facilities.
The workgroup asked, “How has the ability of responding parties to make appearances using technology-based platforms changed appearance rates?” Here are the responses, rounded to the nearest whole number:
Increased appearance rates
No change in appearance rates
Decreased appearance rates
The workgroup asked, “What benefits have litigants, attorneys and other court participants experienced through the use of technology-based platforms?” Here are the responses, rounded to the nearest whole number:
Reduced travel time
Taking less time off work
Increased appearance rates
Increased ability to calendar hearings
Source: ncsc.org, "Post-Pandemic Recommendations," June 2, 2021
Increasing Access for Citizens
In another example of the value of Sirius services, solution architects created a system that allows citizens to look up court information for a small fee, helping to increase access for citizens.
“Previously, a lot of people were coming into the courts to look up case information,” Gregory says. “Much of that information is open to the public, and so we made these small, one-time-use accounts available, where people can sign up for a few dollars to do a handful of searches. This was a stopgap for law offices, bail bondsmen and realty companies that needed to access records and do background checks during the pandemic, and it is also serving regular citizens who may have a reason to look up case information.”
During the pandemic, the court system’s self-help legal office was poorly staffed, and workers struggled to handle the increased volume of inquiries about issues such as eviction. Officials asked solution architects to create chatbots that could help offload some of the burden and provide citizens with timely answers. Solution architects custom-built two chatbots and integrated these tools with the judiciary’s back-end Informix environment.
Sirius can build similar chatbots for all state and local agencies that would benefit from them.
In a move aimed at saving the state money over time, Sirius architects built a new custom application for digital signatures, replacing the judiciary’s off-the-shelf software. Officials were concerned about the long-term costs of the off-the-shelf application, and they wanted to move away from the volume pricing model offered by the vendor.
“They’re always mindful of the cost of any solution, and given the volume of signatures that the courts produce, the off-the-shelf application wasn’t going to be economical over the long run,” Gregory says.
Next, solution architects plan to create a feature that will automatically populate citizens’ answers to certain questions across legal documents, then automatically make changes across those documents when one alteration is made. “Employees process thousands of forms every day,” Gregory says. “When they have to make updates to those forms, it’s a huge effort, and we’re trying to help them reduce that burden.”
As a result of the effort, the state judicial system was able to pivot to a digitalized ecosystem within weeks. The modernized systems benefit all users of the courts, but especially those who have historically faced challenges accessing the system.
The solution also significantly reduces the burden on administrative employees of the court system, who are now able to review and file documents digitally, a process that is quicker and simpler than previous paper-based filing processes. The framework sets the stage for future improvements that will further improve the court experience for judicial system employees, attorneys and regular people who need to access the legal system.
For technology leaders at the state judiciary, the changes streamline IT management. “There’s a tremendous amount of burden being lifted,” says Peters. “Before, they were manually deploying all of their applications, and that takes a lot of time and effort. Now, they’re able to essentially click a button to deploy an application. Previously, application deployment would take a day or more, and now that’s down to under 30 minutes.”
Peters also notes that the scalability enabled by application containerization sets up the judiciary up to grow its applications in the future.
Most important, Russell says, citizens are now able to engage with fully automated systems that allow them to obtain court-appointed representation, initiate guardianship status for family members, bring small claims cases to court and navigate the divorce process.
“For leaders at this state judiciary, the phrase ‘access to justice’ is more than just words,” Russell says. “Because of this work, there are a lot of underserved people and classes of people who now have the courts available to them who didn’t in the past. It makes the whole legal process a lot less intimidating.”
Story by Calvin Hennick, a freelance journalist who specializes in business and technology writing. He is a contributor to the CDW family of technology magazines.