A Call to Action
Paramount to the foundation of American government is a three-branch system, which specifically works to balance the power of each branch to protect the Constitution and the rights afforded to citizens of the United States. But the ability of the judiciary to adequately fulfill its duty to the people is threatened by waning public trust in the court system, demonstrated by decreasing caseloads and the movement of dispute resolution from the courthouse to private-sector forums.
Restoring public confidence means rethinking how our courts work in fundamental ways. Americans deserve a civil legal process that fairly and promptly resolves disputes for everyone — rich or poor, individuals or businesses — in matters large or small. Yet our civil justice system often fails to meet this standard. It’s time for our system to evolve. Our citizens deserve it. Our democracy depends on it.1
The Civil Justice Improvements (CJI) Committee was created to fill the gaps left by judicial reforms that have fallen short, the increased need for systems that better serve self-represented litigants, and a general lack of coherence in addressing the problems of the civil justice system. The CJI Committee, formed in 2013 during the midyear meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ), was charged with developing evidence-based guidelines and providing best-practices derived from lessons learned during pilot projects. The culmination of this work was a series of recommendations to courts in caseflow management to improve the civil justice system.2 The result of the CJI committee’s work is the publication Call to Action: Achieving Civil Justice for All.
Call to Action contains 13 recommendations to reduce cost and delay in civil litigation and improve customer service to litigants. The recommendations envision a civil justice system in which courts align the rules, procedures, and court resources, including judicial case management practices, with the needs and characteristics of similarly situated cases. The CJI committee advocated the use of technology to determine, at the time of filing, the right-size case management required and to monitor case progression throughout its lifetime to adjust the amount of resources allocated for case management, as needed.3
The CJI Committee’s Recommendation 7 states, “Courts should develop civil case management teams consisting of a responsible judge supported by appropriately trained staff.” This recommendation is accompanied by an instructive guide, published by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Using this guide as a springboard, the Supreme Court of Ohio hosted two regional workshops for local court teams. The assembled teams were composed of judges, magistrates, clerks, lawyers, and other justice partners. The daylong workshops challenged court teams to identify the reality of their current civil caseflow and imagine new systems that focus on reform with a purpose, using a “Pathway Approach.” The “Pathway Approach” is based on the concept of proportionality in which both civil rules and court resources are matched to the unique needs of each case. Learning objectives included effective management of discovery disputes; effective civil case automation; strategies for overcoming internal and external resistance; how to form a civil case management team; and effective case management for uncontested dockets.
Faculty from the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, Hon. Thomas J. Rebull and Yanitza Madrigal, M.P.Adm., facilitated the Ohio workshops. As part of a pilot project, the Florida court strategically remodeled their civil docket by identifying the current organizational structure, developed a comprehensive plan for change, and then implemented these changes to improve the system. Changes included local rules to include deadlines to ensure cases stay on track for timely resolution; case management pathways developed to fit the needs of different case types; and standard orders developed and implemented to decrease delay in processing court documents. The result of this project was a dramatic change to the civil caseflow process, with a decrease in the overall time for case processing. Another way the court worked to combat delay was through using specific orders and strict calendars, monitored by staff especially suited for these tasks. The Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court team made all these improvements without a sophisticated case management system, but rather with an Excel spreadsheet (and a team committed to a specific vision). Unanticipated benefits to this project were changes made in courtrooms that were not originally part of this pilot project. The progress made in civil case processing through early identification of cases and the assignment of appropriate resources was noted by peer judges who, on their own, made improvements to civil caseflow processes to achieve similar results.
Taking a cue from the lessons learned and shared by Rebull and Madrigal, local Ohio court teams used statistical reports prepared by the Ohio Supreme Court to identify case types within the local court jurisdiction that show lag times (high overage rates or low clearance rates4), then worked to estimate the amount of time required by administrative, judicial, and justice-partner staff to return a disposition for each case type. This intense review of process is the first step in rebuilding a system that maximizes capacity.
The next step in the workshop was for teams to survey court-personnel allocation and to identify resources to make needed changes to the caseflow system. The goal of the facilitated conversations was to ask court teams to honestly evaluate what is currently available and what was being underutilized, and to look for ways to share resources, when possible. Using the survey of both caseload statistics, as well as an inventory of resources, teams brainstormed solutions to common causes for delay and began planning an implementation strategy.
During the workshop, other innovators joined the faculty to offer fresh perspectives and to share their experiences reducing delay in the courthouse. Alex Sanchez, manager, and Veronica Cravener, supervisor, of the small-claims and dispute resolution department at Franklin County Municipal Court (Ohio) shared the dispute resolution options offered by their local court. A “solutions-focused” approach led this court to implementing online dispute resolution. This mediation platform offers participants a no-cost opportunity to resolve any type of civil dispute from anywhere, at anytime. Parties communicate and share information through a private negotiation space with the assistance of a third-party neutral. “Within two years, 224 small-claims tax cases, 183 general division cases, and 91 pre-lawsuit disputes were mediated online through the platform,” said Sanchez who also observed, “Cases are resolved more efficiently and in a manner that is convenient for the parties, which saves everyone the time and resources associated with going to court.”
Another court shared their use of cloud-based communication, such as Skype, during conferences scheduled with multiple parties and attorneys. It was noted that by offering additional communication options to parties, those with a disability, anxiety, or a hard time communicating can be afforded access to justice in a mode that meets their individual needs. The net result of using technology to improve access to the court has been a population being more quickly served, allowing for case management that is tailored to meet the needs of parties on a case-by-case basis.
This is an exciting time to work in the court system, and there is a lot of work to be done. In a country where technology of science-fiction proportion has become common reality and an immediate response is not just normal but expected, courts must be diligent in their efforts to “keep up” without losing fidelity to the context in which they are founded. This balancing act, between what is available and what is appropriate or feasible, presents the opportunity for creative thinking by court professionals. Taking time to identify the needs of the public who use our courthouses and planning avenues to meet those needs is paramount for the judicial system as it assists the public in the resolution of civil disputes.
About the Author
Colleen Rosshirt serves as policy counsel in the Case Management Section at the Supreme Court of Ohio. She serves 370 trial courts across 88 counties by educating frontline court staff on the best practices for case management. Rosshirt has earned her Camo and Green Belt Certifications from LEANOhio, whose goal is to make government services in Ohio simpler, faster, better, and less costly using the improvement methods of Lean and Six Sigma.
- National Center for State Courts, Call to Action: Achieving Civil Justice for All (Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2016), pp. 2, 3.
- Id. at 4, 5.
- Civil Justice Initiative, “Criteria for Automating Pathway Triage in Civil Case Processing,” National Center for State Courts, 2017, p. 1. For a full list of the 13 Recommendations, see Call to Action: Achieving Civil Justice for All.
- For information on overage rates (time to disposition), see CourTools: Trial Court Performance Measures (Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2005), Measure 3: Time to Disposition. For information on clearance rates, see Measure 2: Clearance Rates.