Past Issues of Government Technology

How to Improve Court Efficiency

Education and standards are needed to effectively apply computer technology to courts.

by / December 31, 1996 0
This country's courts could save enormous amounts of time and money using technology. But in order to do so smoothly and efficiently we need two things: 1) education, and 2) standards.

Lawyers, clerks, judges and court administrators are generally well-educated folks. They just haven't learned computer technology. That's easy enough to fix with a little effort.

Much of the "legal tech" information currently being disseminated to lawyers and judges is, unfortunately, erroneous and outdated. This has led to extremely poor utilization of technology by our judicial system.

By correcting this situation, our judicial system could take advantage of dazzling possibilities such as low-cost transcripts with embedded videos, graphics and sound recordings -- all held on a single disk slipped into a shirt pocket. Transcript copies that now cost thousands of dollars (often paid by the taxpayers) could be produced in minutes for $20 and shipped by e-mail or in a floppy disk mailer bearing two stamps. Time-wasting augmentation and exhibit copying procedures could be a thing of the past. Huge pleadings could be filed with trial courts by e-mail and disseminated electronically, increasing speed and reducing costs.

STANDARDS
In order to realize remarkable savings, we need standards. This is really another part of the educational process because the standards need to be devised, then taught. Computers are fantastic at handling standardized material, and the human mind works much more efficiently if it has standardized ways for handling tasks. Microsoft Windows, for example, and its standardized menus brought order out of chaos for PC users. Standards for file naming, file preparation, and record handling in general can similarly bring incredible efficiency gains in our judicial system.

Let's look at one area of standardization -- file preparation, naming and handling. Clerks, not reporters, should be the central managers for both reporters' and clerks' transcripts. If clerks keep track of current page number status centrally, there will be no more guessing at where the last reporter left off numbering the pages. And no more wasted time by appellate attorneys and courts wondering if the blank between page 756 and 800 is really blank.

And no more duplicated page numbers. If there is a change of reporters, the new reporter takes up the process exactly where the last one stopped. Computers can easily change starting page numbers on succeeding segments before any transcripts are disseminated. Those who have dealt with the process know better than to underestimate the problem of locating reporters later, getting them to provide copies quickly, or getting errors corrected efficiently.

Computer file names need to be standardized too. Computers work purely by logic. They read file names from left to right. If this is not taken into account, files which are named by date of reporting may appear in a strange order in a computer's file folder structure.

If you name files by month-day-year you will find, to your surprise, that, in a case with proceedings spanning several years, all the January files for 1995, 1996 and 1997 are ahead of the December 1995 files. This is easily fixed. Start with the year.

950617 is often used to indicate a file for June 17, 1995. But we have the "Year 2000" problem looming! No problem. Try 19950617.asc to indicate a file in ASCII format for June 17, 1995. 20000101.asc will then be sorted by your computer to follow 19991231.asc. This approach should be adopted as a nationwide standard.

It would be best to have all computer files for a single day of court pieced together electronically and the total disseminated as a single file bearing the date in the file name. Before this is done, the interim files, such as one reporter's segment of a morning trial session, could be given temporary names by the reporters.

You may have noted the .asc file extension and thought, "Now why would anyone even consider using ASCII when they could use a modern format like Microsoft Word?"

First, ASCII files are fairly generic and can be opened easily by any word processor manufactured since the dinosaur era of PC technology. Those who use modern computers and powerful word processors like Microsoft Word will, of course, have a speed, power and easy-to-read display advantage, but that is inherent in using modern hardware and software. Those who choose to use older technology simply suffer from their own choices.

Second, we don't need anything any more complicated than ASCII for reporters' transcripts. The amount of formatting required is minimal -- a little centering, a couple of tabs here and there. Nothing fancy.

The third reason for using ASCII has to do with what happens in the courtroom, particularly during long, complicated trials. A trial lawyer may want to read back earlier testimony to a witness, either from a preliminary hearing, a deposition, or earlier trial testimony. It is generally considered good form and practice to advise opposing counsel and the court of the location of this testimony -- page and lines -- before commencing. That citation to an earlier transcript will appear in the record when viewed by appellate courts and counsel. They will use it to locate the material. You don't want to change the location and thus make it more difficult to find the cited material.

Remember that if you insert material -- as when making changes to text in a modern word processing document -- word wrap and other automatic features will push the later text forward. But with ASCII, there are hard returns at the end of each line. That will preserve page and line numbering locations. So there really is a good reason to use this somewhat ancient tool! Computers can easily handle expansion and shrinkage of lines to accommodate longer or additional words so that part is really no big problem. Fourth, most computer-aided transcription (CAT) programs produce ASCII files or files easily converted to ASCII. It works fine.

California has adopted the ASCII standard for transcripts. Other states should do the same. Visible page numbers should be placed at the top center of each page by CAT programs. Computers go to the beginning of pages, not the ends. And a hard page break should be inserted at the end of each page. That allows computers to "find" and "number" pages in exact correlation to the paper version.

CLERKS' TRANSCRIPTS
Enough about reporters' transcripts. Let's don't forget the clerks and their pleadings, exhibits, jury instructions, forms and minutes. These can be prepared beautifully with Microsoft Word. Anyone can obtain a free viewer from Microsoft via the Internet for temporary use, although I would certainly recommend to lawyers and judges that they get the full program and even the full office suite known as Microsoft Office Professional for Windows 95. Using a word processor makes life easier by making it possible to set many data items in presumptive form, while allowing changes to be made easily by a clerk.

Files could contain embedded (okay in some cases) or linked (a better way most of the time) objects such as videos, sound files or graphics. Individual items can be linked electronically to an index or table of contents. Transcripts hundreds of pages long can easily be handled by computer as a single file. Graphics could be stored separately in "storage folders."

Clerical handling of computer files should also be standardized at all stages of the process. Distribution of appellate transcripts can be accomplished easily by e-mail (using MIME technology) or by 3.5-inch disks via snail mail. The newest 3.5-inch disks can hold huge amounts of data, even without compression. CD-ROM is another possible method. Clerks can make copies in minutes. There is no reason why the taxpayers should pay for all that paper, plus all the copying (both time and hard costs), handling and shipping costs that paper entails. Storage of court records can be on magneto-optical discs which can hold the same amount of data as paper requiring thousands of times as much space. And the electronic medium is searchable!

IT CAN BE DONE
To make sure this all works smoothly requires cooperation and a willingness to learn. It requires the resolve to give up those musty old books and paper transcripts. Those judges, lawyers, clerks, court administrators and others who want to learn the basics can do so at my educational Web site.

Although lawyers and the courts have lagged behind corporate America, I note that an increasing number are now moving to Windows 95, Windows NT and Microsoft Office Professional. When the benefits of upgrading are more fully appreciated, the pace will pick up and we will leave DOS and other ancient programs behind as fond(?) memories.

Now the legislatures must step in and require that our judicial system move forward with technology solutions that will save the taxpayers money. The cost of inefficiency should fall on those who still insist on being inefficient and maintaining the status quo. Our government needs to be user-friendly.

Richard Power is an attorney residing in Shingle Springs, Calif. E-mail < mrappeal@cwnet.com >, Web site: .

*