Trial Court looks forward to feedback from more than 1,000 courthouse users

Issue January 2008 By Kate O’Toole

“Focus, disciplined management, efficiency, responsiveness. The formula for a successful law practice and a well-run nonprofit has many of the same ingredients as a well-functioning court system,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall remarked at the Massachusett Bar Association’s second annual Bench-Bar Symposium this past fall.

Streamlining and enhancing court management has been a top priority for Marshall during her tenure as chief justice. In an effort to more effectively manage the courts, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan and the seven other chief justices from across the state have utilized technology such as MassCourts and CourTools to both improve courts’ organization systems and measure their progress.

In addition to tracking courts’ statistics on clearance rates, pending caseloads and trial date certainty, the Trial Court Department also needs to know how the public users of the courthouses perceive them. Are the courts’ forms easy to understand? Do the courthouses feel safe to the public? Are users receiving fair and courteous treatment from the judges, clerks and courthouse personnel?

“Court department leaders may think that the public perceives the court as performing well, but to make that statement, one would be basing it on merely a feeling or a sense,” said Court Administrator Cheryl Sibley, Esq.

Tracking these users’ experiences requires more than just new technology. This fall, the Boston Municipal Court Department, under the leadership of Chief Justice Charles R. Johnson, piloted a survey project in its eight divisions. Johnson appointed several attorneys, judges, clerks and other court personnel to an Access and Fairness implementation team. The team developed a survey that was distributed to users of the Boston trial courts.

The survey was printed in four languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and Vietnamese — and includes questions focusing on court accessibility and fairness. It also asked court visitors why they were at the courthouse, ensuring that survey respondents ranged from jurors and attorneys to police officers and social services staff.

The surveys supplied statements about the court (such as, “I easily found the courtroom or office I needed,” “The court’s hours of operation were reasonable,” and “In my opinion, my case was handled fairly.”) and asked users to rank them on a scale of one to five, one being “strongly disagree” and five being “strongly agree.” Executive Director Francis J. Carney Jr., Ph.D., of the Administrative Office of the Trial Court, noted that some users provided comments in addition to the simple numerical ratings.

During the first two days of the project, the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department received 248 surveys. The surveys were conducted in all eight divisions and wrapped up near the end of November, and 1,512 surveys were collected in all.

“For the first time, we will be able to see — in an empirical way — how the public perceives the courts, in terms of fairness, equality, fairness and access,” Sibley observed. “It will be helpful and instructive for Chief Justice Johnson to be able to establish priorities as we continue to move forward with these improvements.”

Carney said that the survey results are beginning to be reviewed internally, and that the Access and Fairness implementation team is working on adding narratives to the surveys to give the data more context. For example, the report would explain the use of the CourTools questionnaire, the role of the Access and Fairness Committee in planning and administering the initiative, the methodology used for the project, the highlights of the statistical results and some discussion of the implications of the results for improving court management. The team hopes to make the results public by the end of January.

In addition, the Trial Court Department plans to introduce similar surveys in other court departments. Carney hopes to administer and evaluate survey results of the other seven Trial Court departments by the end of 2008.

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