Improving Public Confidence in the Court

Courthouses are typically dignified, formal places, often with armed guards and security equipment at the entrances. Judges wear robes and sit behind raised benches to convey their authority. The judicial branch is responsible for adhering to constitutionally and statutorily mandated requirements, and hallmarks of well-run courts have been timely data entry and the ability to resolve cases without delay. The continued shrinking of resources for the judicial branch has increased workloads and reduced staffing levels. Often, the emphasis on training for court clerks has been on what they cannot do to assist patrons—no legal advice! While serving the public is a necessary part of the court’s role, customer service has not been prioritized in the administration of justice.

These traditional views of court management contradict what we know about procedural fairness and its impact on the effectiveness of the court. Research tells us that court users who feel the process is fair and respectful are more satisfied and more likely to adhere to court decisions, regardless of the outcomes in their individual cases. If we want the public to accept and follow the orders of the court, we need to have regard for the impact of justice-system involvement on the individual. With high rates of individuals failing to appear in court, unpaid fines and fees, violence in public buildings, and widespread distrust of law-enforcement officials, it has become critical for the courts to focus on improving public confidence.

According to Dr. Tom Tyler’s work out of Yale Law School, voice, respect, neutrality, and understanding are each essential to a justice system that is perceived as fair. It turns out that confidence in the court system very much depends on whether court-involved individuals feel heard and respected and to what extent they comprehend what has happened in their cases. To run effective courts and deliver customer-centric service, we must evaluate how we are currently serving our communities.

This type of self-evaluation can be daunting. It is natural to encounter resistance from court staff, judges, security personnel, and attorneys for various reasons, not the least of which is fear of being singled out as “the culprit.” If inequities and negative experiences were limited to a couple of discrete areas of the justice system, they would likely have been resolved long ago. Unfortunately, the problems are pervasive and widespread, and we must start somewhere if we want to overcome them.

Our court’s self-evaluation started with administering courthouse user surveys. Survey cards were made available in all our court facilities for two weeks, with blue boxes for completed surveys placed prominently in many locations. The initial survey cards included simple multiple-choice questions, with open-ended comments invited on the back of the cards. The surveys were also made available online for individuals who could not complete them in the courthouse.

After tabulating the results, we found that our lowest rankings were in the areas of litigants understanding what happened in court or understanding their next steps. This identified for us a need to focus on process improvements; to review our forms, signage, and web pages; and to examine how we are interacting with individuals in our courtrooms and at public-service counters. We know the number of self-represented litigants in our court continues to increase, which makes it is especially important to ensure that information is communicated in clear and simple language, not jargon or legalese.

Our first evaluation was not all bad. Our court was pleasantly surprised to discover that about 85 percent of the respondents in our first survey strongly agreed or agreed with statements about feeling heard, feeling respected, and having understanding. In our second large-scale court-user survey, we again found that our highest rankings were in the areas of respect and neutrality. Comments expressed appreciation for the work of court staff and judges, as well as security, social services, and probation personnel. Survey responders were grateful, and at times surprised at the kindness and high level of customer service they received. Yet, interestingly, another third of the comments described negative encounters with judges, staff, security, and others. Many of these respondents described the people in the courthouse as rude, unprofessional, or just unhelpful. Comments noted the lack of resources in the courthouse and expressed frustration with phone hold times or wait times in lines. Each of those negative encounters erodes trust in the court and makes it less likely that parties will comply with what the court has ordered. We know that we can do better.

As another step in our own performance review, we applied for and were awarded a Center for Court Innovation (CCI) and U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance procedural-justice-evaluation grant. We were one of four courts selected to receive an on-site review and associated recommendations. The goals for the grant were to highlight promising practices, help identify problem areas, and outline short- and long-term plans for implementing appropriate interventions.

The initial phase of our court’s site assessment consisted of stakeholder interviews and focus groups with key court partners, including representatives from court administration, judges, prosecution, defense, and probation. CCI then conducted an extensive review of our print and online resources for court users; walk-throughs at our various facilities; and courtroom observation for some of our highest-volume dockets. They developed an assessment report for us that identified effective practices and challenges for our jurisdiction. Even without a budget or a grant award, there are resources to assist with this type of assessment, including a toolkit from CCI, Measuring Perceptions of Fairness: An Evaluation Toolkit, by Elise Jensen and Emily Gold LaGratta.

Once evaluations have been completed, it becomes relatively simple to pinpoint low-investment facility and process improvements that can enhance the experience of the court user, such as signage, forms, and instructions. In response to some of our court’s early feedback, we adopted a process for offering video interpreters at customer-service windows. It is more challenging to maintain the momentum and keep resources dedicated to tackle some of the more complicated issues. One of our challenges was finding a better way to assist litigants by providing self-guided digital forms online so that parties could avoid long wait times and complete forms at their own pace. We were dedicated to providing this solution to aid our ever-growing number of parties without representation from a lawyer, but we had to work through our own staff shortages, technology glitches, forms consistency requirements, and contractual obstacles to get to the point of implementation. Eventually, we successfully rolled out an interactive form-completion tool. Each improvement, small or large, supports our court users’ right to be heard and their need for understanding.

We are also working to foster a culture of service and respect among our own workforce. To help direct our efforts, we adopted vision and mission statements to set the tone and establish values for our court employees. Our court’s vision is to “Inspire community trust through the efficient, innovative, and equitable administration of justice.” We have adopted the following mission and guiding statements:

The Multnomah Circuit Court values and empowers our employees. Together with the judges, we help people to access court services and resolve disputes.

  • We will help people equitably, with empathy, and employing the principles of stellar customer service.
  • We will continue to improve access to court services with the use of technology, clear explanations (plain English), and efficient case processing.
  • We will resolve disputes efficiently using technology and offering a variety of options to meet a variety of needs.

These are not statements of how we believe we operate daily but, rather, guiding principles and lenses for us to evaluate all our efforts. When considering a new business process, modifying a form, creating a specialty docket, or filling a personnel vacancy, we want our staff at every level to evaluate whether the change is consistent with these values.

We have established an ongoing series of voluntary “Lunch and Learn” events to improve understanding about different cultures and segments of the community. These hourlong presentations are facilitated by members of our Diversity and Equity Committee, who suggest topics and solicit members of the community to come in to speak with the court’s staff and judges. Topics have included Muslims and Islam; race and the law; Hispanics and immigration policy; transgender issues; the Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American communities; brain injuries and cognitive disorders; disability; and many more. We have found that our judges and staff are enthusiastic about these discussions, and the speakers from the community have been delighted to share their insights.

In addition to the lunchtime offerings, we have created a variety of mandatory trainings that focus on personal growth, rather than on business processes. Topics have included trauma-informed practices, implicit bias, and the principles of procedural fairness. Another mandatory training is our monthly Supervisor Session for all managers, supervisors, and lead workers one morning per month, at a recurring day and time. This not only provides consistent opportunities for professional growth for our court’s leadership, but also gives us a ready “test audience” for new areas of training to be rolled out to staff and allows us to gather our supervisors and leads together for team building. Building and maintaining a satisfied and informed, yet open-minded, workforce for the court is necessary to support the atmosphere of respect and neutrality that our customers need.

Our court has the good fortune to be in the process of constructing a new central courthouse to replace one of our facilities that is more than 100 years old. We know which aspects of our historic facility are not helpful to the public, and we have intentionally designed our new courthouse to improve access and reduce anxiety. Planned features include interior public queuing with informational displays; interactive terminals; views of green space; an information desk in the lobby; centralized public-service windows with electronic check-in and a seated waiting area; no glass partitions between court clerks and litigants; and a dedicated orientation and consultation area for our highest-volume dockets. Our goal is to maintain the decorum of the courthouse while reducing the barriers individuals encounter as they work with the court.

We have also found it helpful to engage in community outreach. We have conducted listening sessions in non-court locations such as schools and auditoriums. We have promoted the events as opportunities to share your “perceptions of justice” with the court, and have publicized them through the bar, community organizations, and local government. The listening-session format includes ground rules for meaningful participation (with time limits for each speaker); a judge as facilitator, but otherwise no responses or speaking from the judges; and no special security. These events have been very enlightening about the frustrations, concerns, and even misconceptions of the public.

We have held three listening sessions so far and have found that juvenile justice, in particular, has been a common theme and an area of confusion. As a result, we decided to follow up with some community-conversation events on juvenile justice. These allow the court and other justice-system partners to address some of the frustrations and explain the spectrum of roles in the juvenile justice system. We created panels of judges, public defenders, district attorneys, service providers, juvenile probation, juvenile corrections, and youth who were previously in the dependency/delinquency system and adult criminal system and who are now youth mentors. The conversation events have consisted of short presentations from the panel members and a longer period for questions and answers between the public and the panel. Other than the time for the staff and judges that have planned and participated in the listening sessions or community conversations, there has been no cost to hold these events.

Despite the pressures we face as court managers, from constantly changing mandates and severely limited resources, we cannot afford to overlook the critical role that public perceptions play in the operation of our courts. Fortunately, self-assessment, grassroots training initiatives, and outreach to engage the public are low cost and relatively easy efforts to begin. None of these are solutions on their own, but they can be important elements of a court’s commitment to inspiring public confidence.


Barbara Marcille is the trial court administrator for the circuit court in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area and manages approximately 350 employees and five court facilities. She has served in a variety of roles for the courts in Oregon, New Mexico, and North Carolina and holds a degree in business from Florida State University. Before working with the court system, she was client services manager for a high-tech advertising agency in the Silicon Valley, and she has used that communications background and her commitment to public service to help the court improve access to justice. For the past four years she has collaborated on the design and construction of a new 17-story courthouse in downtown Portland that is targeted for completion in early 2020.