As 2020 draws to a close, in this end of year post I recap last week’s NCSC eCourts Virtual Conference  and share some thoughts on this past, unprecedented, year.

The eCourts Conference (https://e-courts.org) was a slimmed down, online version of the annual event held in Las Vegas.  There was the usual good content, and here are the sessions that made the biggest impression on me.

The opening session, “Motivating Strategies for a Remote World,” was presented by Thomas Topping.  He started with interesting statistics about how attitudes about, and use of, remote workers have changed in the past year during the pandemic.  The number of remote workers has increased dramatically to 42% for obvious reasons, but 70% of these workers report struggles with technology, motivation, and distractions.  Clearly more work needs to be done to improve remote work. Topping next gave a very useful list of the key things to do to effectively lead remote workers:

  1. Determine priorities
  2. Set goals (clearly, and with negotiated buy-in)
  3. Ensure alignment between goals and priorities
  4. Manage expectations (up and down)
  5. Define success (what are the performance standards)
  6. Hold regular check-ins, with agendas, outcomes, time limits, and that are focused, consistent, and inspirational
  7. Manage performance, not time – give autonomy/freedom to accomplish results
  8. Give recognition when it happens, and make it personal

I heartily agree with the actions on this list.  Since we will undoubtedly continue with lots more remote work in the future, following Topping’s key actions is very important. 

The “Changes, Turn and Face the Strange” conference session shared two programs that should get wide attention:

  1. Dave Byers of Arizona outlined the Offsite Cash Payment Program that started earlier this year (Offsite-Cash-Payment.pdf (ncsc.org)).  Litigants who owe fines and fees can now go to 1,000’s of retail stores to make payments – even out of state (10% do).  This makes paying fines and fees super accessible and easy, and payments are posted to the court’s CMS within 30 minutes at no cost to the court.  I think this is a program that courts everywhere should seriously look into implementing.
  2. Angela Tripp of Wisconsin talked about how the Legal Help Program she heads makes sure to integrate usability testing into the design of court forms, rules, websites, and language wherever there is public-facing information or processes.  This is great work to ensure that the public we serve actually understands and can use the wealth of court information we provide.

The “Weight” conference session shared ways that courts can cope with the anticipated surge in case filings in 2021:

  1. Jack McCarthy of New Jersey related that they are predicting a 38% increase in case filings there.  One project to deal with this situation is the implementation of chatbots. The chatbots have been programmed to supplement and improve the delivery of information to the public by the courts’ help desk and records services.  The chatbots are designed to answer common questions through the use of an expanding knowledge base library that is thoroughly tested for accuracy by not only court staff and judges, but also the public.  Users can access the chatbots via the courts’ website, text messaging, smart speakers (e.g., Alexa), and so on.  Right now, the chatbots are getting about 1,000 queries/day.  Future enhancements include adding multiple languages and case queries.  Very impressive.
  2. Christy Schreiner of Iowa shared how the courts there are developing online dispute resolution (ODR) capabilities for traffic, small claims, and FED/evictions (landlord-tenant) cases.  Many courts have already implemented ODR (e.g., Michigan and Utah), but what was particularly interesting to me about the Iowa approach was the initial focus on having landlord-tenant disputants use the system pre-case filing.  They are getting a lot of interest from property owners because of this.  As an aside, Iowa is also adding a chatbot function.

The final eCourts session that impressed me was “Suspicious Minds,” which addressed disinformation attacks and threats on the justice system. Suzanne Spaulding first reviewed how these attacks have been going on for many years now, particularly from Russia. Malicious actors seek to weaken democracy and undermine public trust and confidence in the courts and beyond (like elections).  The attacks exploit weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our own making – which means there are things we can do to prevent and counteract them.  Court attacks are in the areas of hacking and leaking sensitive documents, altering data, and the prevention of information access (via ransomware, for example).  Spaulding ended her part of the session by emphasizing that as a prime imperative we need to reinvigorate civics education of the populace (see Chief Justice Roberts’ year-end report of 2019 at Chief Justice’s Year-End Reports on the Federal Judiciary – Supreme Court of the United States).  The second speaker was Siobham Gorman, who gave a nice outline of tools to combat disinformation:  build resilience by educating the public (e.g., define your values in advance); create/have a Response Team ready for incidents; recruit validators who can establish trust with key audiences (good validators come from the news media, police, academics, attorneys, elected officials); and plan for disinformation scenarios and consider response messages that can be deployed quickly.  Every court leader should take the lessons of this session to heart and make sure the courts are proactively countering disinformation actions.

The NCSC has posted eCourts session materials at https://e-courts.org/materials.

As 2020 draws to a close, it is time to reflect on this unprecedented year.  In the face of a massive worldwide pandemic, courts around the world have shown a remarkable resilience and adaptation to the situation, turning crisis into opportunity.  For instance, the creativity in pivoting to the need for social distancing has been outstanding.  The swift implementation of remote work and court appearances has been fueled by innovative solutions and digital services that were relatively scarce a year ago.  Just look at the content of the eCourts sessions summarized above to see a few of the actions that courts are taking, implementing solutions that were once a luxury into necessary services.  Courts are working harder than ever to deliver accessible and effective services, and I am certain that this will continue to happen in the coming year.

I am grateful to be a small part of the worldwide court community, and wish everyone the best for a healthy, prosperous, and happy new year.

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