Fixing the process (and paper) in due process: the story of document management and courts

I had a brief stay in county government. It turned out to be the most exciting microcosm of government that I ever worked in. Just walking from one floor to another showed amazing variation in the daily tasks and challenges of a county government worker.

Counties do it all – tax collection to historic records to planning to jails – you name it. But when it came to the technology side of things, the most interesting place to be was the courts’ office. In case you’re not familiar, for most courts, government software solutions start and end with the CMS, or court management system. The CMS story began when the folks in the courts simply had too much work to do, and they needed a better way to do it. Sometimes, this “better way” meant a state-built mainframe system that courts were given to use. Other times, it was a vendor-purchased system.

But that was all the CMS was meant to do – act as a specialized database and scheduling tool with occasional “imaging.” That’s it. It wasn’t built to manage paper like document management software is. And since paper is a tradition of the legal profession, having paper was actually preferred in the courts.

The CMS also wasn’t designed to automate processes with workflow. This is often one of the misconceptions about what the system can and can’t do. Unfortunately, like many specialized databases, a CMS does not have robust workflows or other true content management capabilities. So, while the CMS database may track events, create calendar items and schedule courtrooms, it does not safeguard the paper or make documents available no matter what courtroom the hearing or case ends up in. Nor does it enforce due process or ensure that documents like orders or warrants get circulated to those who act on judges’ rulings.

It may – emphasis on may – have been okay for this disconnected paper/process-CMS dynamic to exist in the past. But today, the situation is very different, and a CMS clearly isn’t enough anymore.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few situations of what life is like in the courts sans document management. Imagine:

•A judge is unable to find a missing document for a case, with no way to see who had it last
•A court clerk having to carry files to a hearing location, only to find that the hearing has been moved to another building, with no way to get physical files to the new location in time, resulting in another delay
•Unmanageable case loads for staffs, resulting in backed up trials and extra costs for the court
Few other government agencies have so much scrutiny and so many reasons why they must keep track of the events and the documents they are using. With all the heightened service expectations and process requirements, it’s time for courts to again embark on a search for that “better way.” Just as the CMS was the answer a decade ago, today it’s a CMS paired with document management. Only then can courts prevent all of the scenarios I described, while also achieving their very reason for existence – public safety.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

So how easy would this shift be? Having a scanner in the courtroom?

“Your Honor, I would like to submit the following documents as Exhibit A” and feeds them into a scanner right then and there…which appears on a monitor for the judge to review and gets fed into a CMS where it lives as part of those court docs forever?

Profile Photo Terri Jones

I think we could have scanners in the courtroom but also, many documents are submitted before hearings and trials. These could already be scanned in. Also, I am concerned about loss of documents. Loss causes so much pain and repetitive work that it is worth re-thinking our court document process and investments to overcome those burdens. Thanks for the comment!