Key Takeaways from the 2023 Courts Technology Conference — Part 3
Posted on November 2, 2023 by Glenn Bischoff
This is the final blog in a three-part series that offers takeaways gathered by MCP subject-matter experts who attended the recent 2023 Court Technology Conference presented by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).
Digital evidence management is a critical need that’s becoming more critical — So much of our lives today is being lived digitally. As a result, our disputes and court cases (both civil and criminal) tend to bring a tsunami of digital evidence to the courthouse, which makes digital evidence management a critical capability that was explored during a panel discussion that focused on policy, use cases, and historical context.
Key takeaways from this session include:
- Legislation likely will lag technology, which is typical
- You will have to interpret and adapt
- You may be called on to modernize laws and court rules
- A key to success is to deploy the technology and related practices in smaller, less-risky efforts, e.g., one case type at a time
The Joint Technology Committee (JTC) produced a super-handy paper — Considerations for Procuring and Implementing Digital Evidence Management Software — to guide adoption of digital evidence technology. The paper, which is available at the JTC website, covers key considerations, benefits, and challenges, and provides three sample request-for-proposals (RFP) documents.
The grass is always greener — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts globally are reevaluating their technology decisions, toggling between buying off-the-shelf solutions or building customized ones, all while being lured by the potential of cloud -hosted solutions. Driven by post-pandemic funding, a pressing need exists for a decision-making framework that addresses both current challenges and future needs. Information technology (IT) leaders from various courts emphasize the importance of weighing the pros and cons of each option. Ultimately, courts need to prioritize decisions that are both sustainable and adaptable in a rapidly changing technology environment.
Accordingly, a CTC 2023 presentation delved into the evolving landscape of court technology, especially in the wake of rapid digital shifts brought on by the pandemic. It's not just about the universal "build versus buy" debate but also requires a holistic look into the future concerning cloud adoption, as well as insights into vendor dynamics and the emergence of a collaborative court technology community. The presentation showcased real experiences of court IT leaders who are navigating these uncharted waters — the content was cutting-edge and immensely relevant for the modern age.
Every court, regardless of its size or jurisdiction, grapples with technological decisions that have wide-reaching implications. The presentation offered a valuable roadmap for these decisions, drawing from real-world experiences and challenges. Beyond just systems and vendors, it underscored the importance of community-led insights and emphasized collaborative solutions in the justice technology ecosystem. For courts worldwide, this serves as a blueprint, ensuring they remain efficient, agile, and ready for the future, while making their processes more streamlined and helping them serve the public more effectively.
How to avert a crisis when a cyberattack occurs — Another presentation told a success story concerning a cyberattack on the state of Missouri’s court system. The event emphasized the inevitability of cyberattacks and highlighted the importance of pre-event preparedness, including having an information technology (IT) emergency response plan and clear decision-making authority. During the incident, swift collaboration with Microsoft’s cybersecurity team led to the timely neutralization of the threat. Key takeaways included the necessity of clear communication with all stakeholders, ensuring updated security protocols, and the crucial role of a pre-established plan in successfully managing crises.
The discussion hit home with its real-life account of a cyberattack on the Missouri court system, emphasizing the importance of prior preparation. The presenters meticulously detailed the event, showcasing the collaboration with Microsoft’s cybersecurity team, and highlighting the human element that was a factor during the crisis. They captured the essence of their message with Benjamin Franklin's quote: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
The discussion underscored a pressing reality for judicial systems globally — the inevitability of cyberattacks and the critical importance of being prepared. For other courts, the Missouri court system's real-life experience serves as a potent reminder of the potential consequences of unprotected systems. Their proactive response to the attack, which emphasized preparedness and swift action, highlights the necessity of having robust cybersecurity measures in place. A key takeaway for all court systems is that safeguarding sensitive data, upholding stakeholder trust, and mitigating financial and reputational risks are paramount in the digital age, and that preparation is the key to successfully navigating such crises.
A deeper dive into ensuring data quality in the courts — Speakers highlighted a data-quality effort to manually audit cases with the goal of identifying open cases and improving case-status entries.
Florida Courts recognized that they could not accurately identify open cases in response to a requirement to issue case-management orders on all pending cases. The Florida Supreme Court’s Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability established a data-quality workgroup to address the issue.
The effort received funding to hire interns to manually review files and enter results in a database. The interns found a significant number of cases where clerks failed to accurately identify a case closure. As a result, the workgroup recommended establishment of an “easy button” for court staff members and judges to quickly report data-quality errors. The workgroup also recommended providing clear guidance to clerks on how to close cases; asking attorneys to advise clerks when a filing closed a case; and training clerks on common-order case closings.
A few thoughts about dashboards — Ken Burke, chief of court for Pinellas County, Florida, described a recent effort to gather statewide data from across the justice landscape for a law-enforcement criminal dashboard. Challenges include:
- Lack of funding
- Mandated timeline (which they did not meet)
- Data required was not collected
- Accurate identity matching
- Data standards and definitions
Burke stressed the importance of standardizing data definitions across the various court jurisdictions and then across the justice landscape, which he acknowledged is extremely tedious but important work.
Katie Blakeman, senior data and innovation manager for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, discussed the ongoing transition to data dashboards in her state. Challenges include:
- Multiple case management systems across jurisdictions
- Lack of uniformity
- Required data is not collected in all courts
- Lack of court partner buy-in
Blakeman discussed the project’s need for a data-standardization task force to define terms across jurisdictions — she also acknowledged the tedious nature of such work, as well as its importance. She said the plan is to release dashboards to local courts first so that they can review and understand them before responding to questions. She is uncertain regarding whether data dashboards will lead to fewer data requests — some jurisdictions have reported that dashboards may lead to more requests.
Kudos to the UX Court Capers Challenge winners — The National Center for State Courts announced the winners of its UX Court Capers Challenge, which spotlights innovative ways that court systems are using technology to enhance the experiences of litigants, staff members, judges, partner agencies, and the public. The winners include:
- 1st place: City of Denton (Texas) Municipal Court — Online Traffic Court – Mobile App
- 2nd place: Missouri City (Texas) Municipal Court — Streamlining Jury Service
- 3rd place: Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Domestic Relations Court — "Give Me a Divorce!" Virtual Help Center
The following are best practices for making the user experience better:
- Courts must coordinate navigable pathways, i.e., they must understand the sequence of events, physically and procedurally
- Courts should leverage “wayfinding” tools that enable users to physically orient themselves and navigate through the court while also navigating bureaucratic procedures
- Warm and efficient welcomes encourage users to follow through with procedures and gives them confidence and dignity while doing so
- Courts should redesign paperwork to be more visually clear, prioritized, and manageable (e.g., make language clearer with users in mind)
- Courts should develop online tools that can help people prepare for their visits and perform tasks correctly beforehand
- Courts should consider implementing workstations that provide materials users can leverage to perform tasks so that they are prepared for the clerk and judge
- Courts should develop culture of usability, testing, and feedback
- Understand the failure points that exist for litigants, negative and frustrating experiences, and ideas for improvements