With the appointment of Janet DiFiore as New York’s Chief Judge two years ago, the Unified Court System’s top priority has been achieving excellence in every aspect of the delivery of justice in this state. One critical means of achieving the goals of the Excellence Initiative is through technology. By expanding and modernizing our technology operations, we have made justice more accessible and more efficient.
A prime example is the development of computer “dashboards,” which enable judges and court administrators to review and evaluate precise details of every court’s caseload in a spreadsheet format that can be filtered in any number of ways, including by judge, court part, case type, age of case, next appearance date, attorney name, and party name. The dashboards have been invaluable in comprehending and tackling backlogs and delays, better enabling judges and administrators to actively manage our considerable case inventories.
For example, we discovered that in the Bronx Supreme Court there was one court part that, through no fault of the judge, had a disproportionate number of felony drug cases. By analyzing the data in the dashboard, the judge developed a plan of action to calendar the cases in chronological order. The District Attorney’s Office agreed to make a final plea offer in each case and, where there was no resolution, the cases were immediately sent to trial. Through this process, the number of cases in the part was reduced from 800 to 250.
The state courts’ e-filing program is another example of modernizing our court system through technology. We have introduced e-filing in 61 courts statewide, with close to 73,000 attorneys as registered users, and over 1.6 million e-filed cases across the state, in Supreme Court, Surrogate’s Court, and the Court of Claims. E-filing will be launched in all four departments of the Appellate Division in early 2018. We are also now laying the groundwork for introducing e-filing in the criminal and family courts.
The benefits of e-filing are far-reaching, saving money and increasing productivity. E-filing makes the entire case file accessible online to all counsel of record at any time from any secure location. Whenever the court files a decision and order, immediate notice is provided to all counsel and participating unrepresented litigants by email, with a copy of the document attached. With e-filing, filers can embed bookmarks and hyperlinks, making it much easier for the reader to find significant portions within the text and to check citations. It also allows for the reader to search the text by keywords.
Separate from e-filing but equally helpful, the E-Track system allows attorneys to track their cases in all 62 counties, including civil cases statewide, as well as criminal cases in New York City, Nassau, and Suffolk. The system notifies the registered attorneys via email about any new developments in the case.
Our Integrated Courtroom Technology program combines a range of technology components that enhance efficiency and accessibility for all participants in the courtroom. The program includes updated sound systems, audio and video conferencing for remote appearances and remote interpreting, assistive listening devices, monitors for displaying testimony through real time reporting, a courtroom audio recording system when court reporters are unavailable, and secure Wi-Fi access for judges and open public Internet access for the public. There is also an evidence presentation system for physical and electronic evidence. We began installing this technology in 2016, and now have over 20 operational courtrooms with 20 more expected in 2018.
In 2016, the Legislature authorized a pilot program in Family Court to accept the filing of petitions for temporary orders of protection electronically, and to hold the initial ex parte hearing via video conference. The program allows approved advocacy groups to work with domestic violence victims in preparing and e-filing petitions for temporary orders of protection. Victims can also make their initial appearance via Skype conference set up by the advocating agency, and are given a secure email account from which they can communicate and receive records regarding the case. These accommodations shield victims of domestic violence from the trauma of having to appear in court in the presence of their abuser. The program is the first of its kind in the nation to be implemented on a statewide basis. Currently, it is operational in 15 counties, with additional counties to be added in the coming months and the goal of statewide deployment within two years.
Indeed, Family Court has been on the cutting edge of technology innovation. In Monroe County, the Family Court has introduced an electronic program that allows all parties to a case to sign in at a designated check-in desk, that then electronically alerts the courtroom when all parties are present and the case is ready to be called.
All Family Court files in New York City are now completely digital and no paper record is created for any new proceeding filed. The court receives most petitions from presentment agencies in digital format. The few paper petitions (and other paper documents) received are scanned and converted to digital format. Petitions involving self-represented litigants are prepared by court staff and digitally signed by the petitioners. All orders produced by the court are digital and electronically signed. Paper copies are only produced for distribution to litigants. The only hard copies of documents the court retains are evidence that is maintained in the form in which it was submitted. Jurists view documents on computer screens. Finally, copies of court files on appeal are sent digitally to the Appellate Division.
As is often the case, relatively simple steps have proved to be impactful. The summons parts in New York City are now capable of sending defendants text message reminders before their court appearance date. Even our jury management system has seen a facelift, as we have streamlined the process for issuing qualification questionnaires and summonses, and can now send communications to jurors through email and text messaging. The court system’s social media presence has increased and includes a handful of accounts, each designated for a specific task or responsibility. Among them, we have Twitter accounts for announcing emergency court closures (@nycourtsnotice), that boasts more than 23,000 followers, for disseminating information about access to justice resources, news, and services (@NYCourtsA2J), and for promoting racial and ethnic fairness in the court system (@NYCourtsFHW).
These are some of the many efforts we are taking to expand the use of technology throughout the court system. Technological innovation is an integral part of the Excellence Initiative and our mission to improve the accessibility and efficiency of justice. As technology continues to transform our society, the Unified Court System is committed to doing everything it can to modernize our operations and enhance the quality of justice for all New Yorkers.