Lawyers Journal

Tech Corner: MassCourts' launch promises ease, efficiency for courts, lawyers, public

The effort to modernize the Massachusetts court system is rolling along, with more pieces of the Web-based upgrade being added each month.

At the heart of the state's effort to upgrade is MassCourts, an electronic case management system that combines everything from docketing to criminal identity databases in one central location. Based on technology provided by contractor Maximus Inc. out of Reston, Va., MassCourts will replace several disjointed computer systems unable to talk to one another.

"It's an electronic docketing and financial information system that combines, for the first time, on a single platform, across all divisions of the Trial Court, the basic case management information necessary for the court to do its business," said Judge James F. McHugh, associate justice of the Appeals Court and special advisor on information technology to Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan.

"It has been difficult to find the different pieces," McHugh said of the previous system. Because all of the information now will be accessible from one Web-based system, "it allows people to take a look at a screen and with a click of a mouse, get all of the case information."

MassCourts is very intuitive in its design, using standard hyperlinks and search tools to take users to various pieces of the system. McHugh said the system marks the first time that financial information will be housed together with other case management information, which should make things easier both for court employees and consumers.

Previously, "there was no standardized way of accounting for the monies people take in," McHugh said. "This system opens the possibility of a single-payer system."

For example, someone owing a fine in Barnstable court and probation fees in Suffolk County could go to any court in the state and have those payments transmitted to the court that is owed.

MassCourts also consolidated two large databases containing information on criminal cases — the Warrant Management System operated by the clerk magistrate and the Criminal Arraignment Records Information system run by the probation department. Because they were maintained by two separate entities, WMS and CARI sometimes contained conflicting information. MassCourts will alleviate that and help solve identity problems of defendants, ultimately becoming a fingerprint-based system.

There is a huge nationwide problem with criminal identities, a problem the Justice Department and FBI began addressing in the 1990s, said Craig Burlingame, the Trial Court's chief information officer. Boston police have been electronically fingerprinting everyone since 2000. "With identity theft being what it is, (use of fingerprints) really is the gold standard," Burlingame said.

Full implementation on the way
Maximus has been working with the state for three years to get the MassCourts system up and running. The deployment began with a client-server version in Boston Municipal Court back in the fall of 2003. A "thin" Web-based version called MassCourts Lite was launched in Land Court in February 2005.

That was followed by document imaging and scanning software installed in Probate & Family Court this past January. So far, more than half a million documents have been scanned, Burlingame said. "Now those documents can be pulled up electronically in the courthouse environment," Burlingame said. Court employees can easily match the documents with docket entries rather than having to wait on a file.

The court's IT staff has been busy rolling out MassCourts Lite to other departments and divisions this year, and now they are ready to launch the full version. The full MassCourts will kick off in the Housing Court in the first quarter of 2007, followed by Probate & Family Court in the second quarter.

So far, acceptance of the new system has been high, officials said.

"There is an initial learning curve; that's obvious," McHugh said. "There is, in the case of both the Land Court and District Court, a business process change; a huge one. With MassCourts Lite, I think more than 80 percent of responses to the survey said they were comfortable or very comfortable in using the system, and that's good to hear."

On the business side of the courts, the system will allow officials to look at case information as a whole and make "macro case management" and resource allocation judgments, McHugh said. The Web-based system should also aide in disaster recovery situations if a courthouse is damaged by fire or flooding and paper documents are destroyed.

McHugh said the system should help judges by allowing them to look at calendars, dockets and things going on in other courts related to a case. For example, when entering an order and setting a time limit for responses, judges will easily be able to see pertinent information like trial dates.

"Those kinds of things are going to be widely available for judges, which will make it both easier and more coordinated," McHugh said.

A public benefit
Consumers also stand to benefit from the upgrade. Court employees fielding telephone calls will have access to much more comprehensive information and will be able to help consumers more quickly, Burlingame said. Lawyers also could be able to access the system in certain circumstances to check the docket or other pieces of data.

The more long-term additions could include electronic filing, e-mail alerts and e-mail notification of case results.

"In addition, there is the possibility that huge chunks of business can be done electronically," McHugh said. He cited the work going on now between the Boston Police Department and Boston Municipal Court to streamline the police report/criminal complaint process, to replace the current system relying partially on handwritten applications. Without the current system of three or four people re-entering the same information, there is less room for error.

"It's an incremental process," McHugh said. The courts also are talking to other agencies about automating the exchange of information, he said. Currently, police departments can look in the MassCourts system using the police department's own booking number for a suspect. McHugh said they have about 6,000 numbers in the system already.

The Board of Bar Overseers provides a nightly feed to the MassCourts system, updating any changes of address filed by attorneys. Ultimately, the goal is for attorneys to only have to provide a change of address once to the BBO rather than filing the change with each court. The courts also are testing out a system to link information about public defender appointments with payment information.

Other technological improvements
MassCourts is not the only technical upgrade for the state's judicial system. The state also has updated its internal help desk, tracking how long it takes for employees to get assistance with IT needs. All e-mail traffic has been moved from a client-server based system to a Web-based system. The courts also added automated backup of all personal computers. A new group is studying possible applications for wireless technology, with a report expected by the end of the year.

The Supreme Judicial Court also is well planted in the technical realm, with more than a year of webcasts under its belt. In partnership with Suffolk University, the Supreme Judicial Court is webcasting and archiving all of its oral arguments, which can be found at www.suffolk.edu/sjc.

Suffolk submitted the winning proposal to provide live webcasts, technical support, case summaries and archiving of the oral arguments. Every case since September 2005 has been taped and archived.

"We see it as a very, very compatible activity with our educational mission," said John C. Deliso, associate dean of Suffolk University Law School.

"We are a school that has tried to use technology to aid the process of legal education," Deliso said. "The streaming video of SJC was a natural for us because it took us into one more IT arena."

The webcasts are a valuable tool for lawyers hoping to get a sense of the judges before arguing a case before them, for law students and for younger students trying to learn about the judicial process, Deliso said.

While the site is still relatively unknown, Deliso said the site is averaging about 100 hits a day. Viewership has been surprisingly diverse in a geographic sense, he added, with hits from Europe and Africa. "Over time, I'm very confident we'll have larger and larger numbers of viewers," Deliso said.

On the whole, technology is a tool that will increasingly creep into the practice of law and the courts through MassCourts, webcasts and other initiatives.

"There are some very, very sensitive issues when you use technology in the administration of justice," Deliso said. "That being said, it's part of the methodology of doing business in today's world in every form."

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