Accessing our courts should be as painless as possible, right?
At first blush, this goal doesn’t seem like it should be too difficult to manage. Once underway, most proceedings to resolve minor cases involving civil infractions or low-level misdemeanors — the majority of the issues our courts process — are surprisingly short and simple. In both formal and informal settings, what amounts to a minute-long conversation with a judge, prosecutor, city attorney, or court clerk is usually all that is needed for the parties to find a mutually agreeable solution.
So it’s hard to believe that most minor cases require months and a great many resources (both public and private) to resolve. This is the reality in courts across the state and the nation, despite our country’s centuries-long dedication to “speedy” process. In a typical Michigan court, it often takes many weeks for someone to get the necessary minute of a prosecutor’s or judge’s time in a courthouse.
Some percentage of this delay is due to the limited number of minutes available in a day, of course. But the bulk of the delay and difficulty derive from the organizing and arranging of these minute-long meetings. It is far more time-consuming and resource-intensive for today’s courts to get citizens, law enforcement and a judge into the same room to resolve an issue than it is for the parties to resolve the issue once there.
Court processes are what manage the flow of people and information in our courthouses. They include scheduling hearings, organizing files and keeping records. It is these processes — most of which haven’t changed in any serious way in many decades — that inevitably lead to long delays. What’s worse is that government budget cuts along with staff and hour reductions have meant that courts are forced to do more and more with less and less.
With many courts nationwide routinely struggling to keep up with their caseloads, the time is ripe for innovation in court processes. Our courts lead the world in having highly trained and dedicated judges, prosecutors and court personnel who can use their expertise and discretion to make difficult decisions. What we need are court processes that complement and augment their decision making, but that do so in a highly efficient manner – a perfect recipe for technology-based solutions.