Where local courts are today
Local courts play an important, central role in the lives of community residents, offering services beyond hearings that range from fine settlements and housing assistance to vehicle registration and family support. Amongst local government offices, courts see some of the highest foot traffic from community residents, with nearly 66% of Americans interacting with their local court in some form each year.
Yet engaging with the local court system is sometimes a daunting process. Despite 75% of court users reporting that they were satisfied with the overall outcome of their court engagement, only 33% were satisfied with the resolution process – citing confusion, inconsistencies, and overall process hardship as the main drivers for dissatisfaction.
These facts beg the ultimate question: if millions of residents go to their local court for assistance in dealing with legal disputes or for debt, housing, child custody, or divorce assistance, how can we make the courts work better for them? Some courts have answered this question by employing innovative approaches that can make a big difference in driving stronger community-court interactions and experience in a low budget environment. And, what’s more, these community-minded strategies can be deployed in other local government agencies.
Promising community-centered strategies in local courts
To design the court of the future that is responsive to all constituent needs, courts must directly hear from constituents to understand their experiences, frustrations, and ideas. Feedback and satisfaction surveys are a great tool to measure and address those experiences while enlisting community involvement in the improvement of the court experience.
Feedback survey design and implementation can be executed excellently by local courts with minimal budget. Below are key considerations which are core to designing and implementing court feedback mechanisms well:
- Design questions that are simple and easy to access. Survey instructions and questions should be written in plain English and at an accessible reading level to promote participation. Surveys should also be translated to the top-spoken languages in the community. It is important to clearly communicate the purpose of the survey, that it is confidential, and that the feedback recorded will not affect the outcome of any case.
- Design questions that address social determinants of justice. Much like the social determinants of health, the conditions in which people are born, grow, live and work relate to their court experience and outcomes. Designing the court of the future requires recognition that the public consists of individuals with different needs.
- Share the survey in digital and paper formats. Surveys should be as easy to access and complete as possible to maximize participation. Surveys can be accessed on cell phones enabled by QR codes placed across the courthouse, allowing visitors to easily record their satisfaction in the web browser of their phones at their own time and convenience. Hard copies should also be available for visitors that prefer pen and paper.
- Share the survey at all high-traffic touchpoints. Survey access should be available, whether digitally or on paper, at all high-traffic areas, which can include the courthouse entrance, outside courtrooms, bathrooms, the help desk, parking structures, and on any material that visitors leave the courthouse with (e.g., fine payment receipt).
- Earn buy-in from court stakeholders. Visitors of the courthouse engage with a host of government services to fulfill their needs, such as the Clerk of Courts, Probation Department, and Family Services. Having the support of such administrators is essential to creating a survey that is encompassing of the residents’ court experience and will encourage buy-in of other stakeholders.
- Organize and analyze the data transparently. Collecting visitor feedback is merely the first step – courts must build trust with the community by transparently reviewing survey responses and deciding what changes might be made to address pain points. Courts can begin doing this by setting up an ongoing process for which survey results are tracked, monitored, and shared.
Many courts across the U.S. have successfully implemented feedback surveys to enhance their court processes. Changes stemming from community feedback include clear court signage for navigation, a revamp of instructions and procedures for filing orders of protection that is more constituent-friendly, and staff training on best practices for delivering and communicating court services.
The court of the future will be centered around the resident experience and needs. There are a host of operational innovations that can create “quick wins” for courts and their constituents as far as improved experience, along with more frontier innovations that can radically transform the user experience in a low budget environment.
- Visual handout guide to following legal processes
- Constituents often express confusion around what to expect on the day of a trial, or how to follow legal procedures such as obtaining an Order of Protection or requesting tenant assistance services administered at various local courts.
- Many courthouse procedures and FAQs can be conveyed in single-page handouts that visually provide step-by-step guidance for processes, such as opening a child custody case or navigating the day of a hearing. These handouts can be tailored to specific processes and be made available at various courthouse touch points (e.g., help desk, waiting areas) and online. Scaled versions of this can include How-To videos available online conducted by courthouse staff that walk residents through various court processes.
- Clear courthouse navigation for improved wayfinding
- Courthouses can feel confusing and intimidating, especially for those that arrive at court for the first time. Clear and ample court signage directing residents towards common court destinations, along with pictograms and uniform color palettes that are associated with specific courthouse services, have contributed to overwhelmingly positive results in user access and experience where implemented.
- Court schedule transparency
- The daily courthouse docket schedule is often opaque; visitors are expected to arrive at the courthouse upon opening and wait in the area until their name is called, with little to no view in how the day’s schedule is progressing. This can create inconveniences around time off work and finding childcare.
- Progress tracking tools can go a long way in alleviating such inconveniences by providing real-time updates on estimated hearing or service appointment time, allowing constituents to plan to be at the courthouse only for the window that is required. Such tools can be visualized digitally in waiting rooms or connected to alerts & reminders that residents receive as part of any courthouse communications.
- Pre-trial notification system
- Constituents often fail to show to court due to confusion around knowing where and when to show, which can lead to further justice involvement.
- Digital court reminders are a direct way to increase court-community interaction in a low-touch, yet effective manner. Notification system software such as UpTrust and RemindMe allow local court systems to send reminder texts days before a hearing and enable courts to include information on how to prepare and navigate their day at court or access human services (e.g., social workers, court liaisons).
Improving community-court interaction begins with driving court outreach in the community. Constituents often have little connection with judges and court administrators beyond court hearings and services, contributing to an archaic view of the courthouse in the community. Yet there are various ways to reimagine how the court can engage with its community to break down conceived notions of the court and help foster trust among its users:
- Judicial listening tours throughout the community for court staff to court procedures and outcomes with specific interest groups and members of the community, and bring awareness to new procedures (e.g., new expungement laws)
- Court-in-the-Neighborhood model that brings the court to the community. Low-level criminal offenses, family and housing disputes, and juvenile delinquency cases are heard at community centers such as churches and schools and incorporate local voices such as residents and community groups in the administration of justice. Such courts are designed to respond to the concerns of individual communities – taking into consideration particular economic and social landscapes – and often involve community service and engagement with local community programs as part of dispute resolution.
Community-focused approaches can work for other agencies, too
The above innovations are just a small sample of the initiatives that local courts can take to begin redesigning court processes to be more constituent friendly. More importantly, these innovations can be scaled to other local government agency contexts, such as the DMV, the post office, and public works – creating an ecosystem of local services that are more constituent-oriented. This local service orientation helps to promote and foster community trust and satisfaction, a fundamental pillar to a well-functioning and well-serving government.