When my grandfather became a city councilman in St. James, Minnesota over a century ago, he said that “he had accepted a public trust and would keep the faith.” During my career as a court administrator I was constantly inspired by my grandfather’s words to “keep the faith” with the public I served. Along the way I considered the question: What are the fundamental professional values that should guide court administrators in keeping that faith? It took many years, but I finally codified a set of value statements that I did my best to live by and communicate as expectations to court staff. Here is a graphic that shows the ten values:
From time to time I will share the individual value statements in the Vantage Point blog. Today I start with the “Public Service Through Accessibility” value because I believe public service is at the very center of the work of any government institution, including the courts.
Public service lies at the heart of fulfilling the public’s trust in us, its servants. And, an accessible court and clerk’s office is the cornerstone of excellent service. If we are to achieve equal justice for all, we must have equal access for all. Openness and ease of use create a more equitable environment for everyone we serve. Three key areas define an accessible, service-oriented, court:
- Geographic/physical. Minimizing the distance to court facilities increases accessibility for court users. Additionally, once people arrive at the court, court security and emergency preparedness have a direct effect on accessibility–maintaining a safe environment enhances public trust, and keeping the court open in an emergency situation affords users unbroken access. The design of our facilities also has a direct effect on whether users can freely participate in court functions. Therefore, designs to accommodate the sight- or hearing impaired, people with mobility problems, or other disabled people are important. How electronic systems, such as telephone and web sites, operate can either enhance or bar access as well. Whether records are properly preserved, are accurate, and are open for review affects user access to court information. Similarly, the degree to which court proceedings are open to the public is a key factor. It is easy to see how being physically accessible is a fundamental aspect of providing excellent public service.
- Procedural. The common phrase, “justice delayed is justice denied,” emphasizes the necessity for streamlined procedures. How quickly we serve our users, be it at the front counter, on the phone, or in the time it takes to go from filing to final judgment, is a critical public service factor. Whether our forms, rules, and procedures are simple to understand and use greatly determines whether the public can effectively take part in our court’s functions. For example, is the language understandable? Complex procedures result in more time and effort being expended by everyone, including attorneys, resulting in greater costs and barring some people from even participating. We must also not forget that our level of courtesy and responsiveness to the needs of our users affects how accessible we are. In sum, our simplified, understandable, timely, knowledgeable, and courteous interactions with the public provide great service and enhance trust and faith in the judicial process.
- Economic. Making costs to use the court reasonably affordable is critical to give people access to justice and our services. Costs can take the form of filing fees, copy costs, travel expenses, and time taken from work. As we have seen above, court procedures affect attorney costs. The ability to hire an attorney is a major issue for litigants, directly affecting the rate of pro se filings. Since pro se parties have many difficulties in accessing justice, attorney costs are a significant problem. Poor performance in these economic areas causes ignorance about and fear of the court, erecting outright barriers to use of the court and clerk’s office by litigants, lawyers, other court participants, and the public at large. When we keep economic costs down and make the court more accessible, public service goes up.
These three key areas show how accessibility is affected by almost everything we do. Thus, we must constantly review current operations and implement changes to maximize accessibility in all of our functions, be they facilities, computer systems, forms, records, rules, calendaring, noticing, or our direct interactions and treatment of those whom we serve each day. When we fail to maximize accessibility, often the hardest hit are those people who most need the court’s services. If the public cannot access our services, our level of public service is nonexistent.
Enhancing accessibility and providing excellent service is fundamental to fulfilling the public’s trust in us as public servants.
I hope that reading this post has made you think about the essential professional values court administrators should have to achieve high performance. From time to time I will share more of my value statements in future blog posts. Please share your ideas in the comments section below, as I’d love to hear what others have to say on this topic.