In Bronx Family Court, Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive forms are a central component of an innovative e-filing project that has dramatically increased the court’s efficiency. The new pilot project is a paradigmatic example of technology’s capacity to increase access to justice, streamline court processes, and create a better and friendlier litigant experience.
Traditionally, when unrepresented litigants seek an Order of Protection (OP) in Family Court, they are told to wait in a crowded, impersonal room, and eventually met with a clerk who manually records the information (e.g. their name, the alleged offender’s name, litigant’s allegations, past legal actions, state registries, etc.) needed for the petition. This time and resource-intensive process was long and draining for litigants, and it prevented clerks from attending to their many other duties.
The new e-filing project is revolutionizing OP petition filing in Bronx Family Court and demonstrating a path for future uses of legal technology. In the Bronx, LHI programs are employed to allocate much of the petition preparation and intake to advocates instead of court clerks respectively. Under the pilot project, unrepresented litigants meet with approved advocates from nonprofit agencies in a smaller, more welcoming space in the courthouse where they can be comfortable explaining their situation.
The advocates use LHI programs to conduct intake and prepare petitions, which they electronically submit directly to the court’s Unified Case Management System (UCMS). LHI programs make petition preparation quick, easy, and accurate, ensuring both properly formatted, legible petitions for judges and court staff and allowing the advocates to assist far more litigants than if they were required to write every petition from scratch.
After meeting with an advocate and electronically submitting the petition, litigants head to the petition room to verify the information. Clerks quickly review the petition and cross-reference the parties to the case with other information in the UCMS or state databases. Litigants then go directly to see the judge/court referee, whose courtroom is directly off the petition room. Litigants who are granted a Temporary Order of Protection receive the paperwork in a matter of minutes. The clerks are able to process far more litigants, focusing on non-electronic filings and judges are able to issue more – and more accurate – orders. Usage of the LHI forms has increased each quarter, and in the final quarter of 2013 the application generated almost 40 petitions a day.
For other family court matters, such as child support, unrepresented litigants can use one of a dozen court-provided computers to access online Do-It-Yourself forms that generate the necessary documents. Exhibit A is a visual recreation of the new process in the petition room.
The new system is open and transparent, using large windows without glass to provide litigants with a direct view of the inner workings of the court. In addition to the inherent virtues of transparency, the increased openness fosters greater trust in the justice system. Trust is essential to the court system’s genuine efforts to configure its courthouses into more user-friendly and approachable places for the litigants who seek justice there.
Under the tremendous leadership of Clerk of Court Mike Williams, the e-filing project is dramatically decreasing the time it takes to file OP petition, more efficiently utilizing staff resources and time, and increasing the capacity of both legal aid providers and the Bronx Family Court.