Visitors to the 42 buildings that house the New Jersey courts will soon get a chance to give feedback on their experiences with the state justice system.
During the week of Oct. 7, staff in every vicinage will hand out what is in essence a customer satisfaction survey, gauging users' ratings of ease of access to the courts and fairness of treatment received.
The survey was initiated by the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness, formed in 2011 to focus on how the courts are performing in the face of economic pressure, the continued increase in pro se litigants and "the need to treat each case and each litigant with dignity and respect."
The committee chairman, Judge Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, describes the survey as "an effort to assess how well we're serving the constituencies who come into our courthouses."
It looks at whether "we treat each and every individual with the same level of respect, courtesy and opportunity that everybody should be expected to have," he says.
The portion of the survey focusing on court access will ask whether it was easy to find the courthouse, and once inside, the particular room; whether respondents felt safe in the building; whether court hours were convenient; whether paperwork was readily understandable; whether respondents were treated with courtesy and respect by court staff and security personnel; and whether the court website was useful.
It will also inquire about any problems caused by disability or need for interpreters.
Other questions deal with fairness — not just about the result but whether the judge or hearing officer listened to both sides before rendering a decision, had the information needed to render a good one and explained the reasons for the result and whether the person understood what happened.
The survey responses will be anonymous but participants will be asked to state their gender, age range and race, and indicate why they were in court, including the type of case and their role — party, private attorney, prosecutor, public defender, witness, victim, etc. — and, if a party, whether they had counsel.
A summary of the results will be made public and will provide "a base line as to how we're doing to see if there are areas of success or concern that need further attention," says Grant.
He is asking lawyers to take the surveys and encourage their clients to do so.
New Jersey's efforts are part of a nationwide effort to improve access to justice, aided by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), which created the questionnaire, and the American Bar Association.
Counterparts to the New Jersey committee exist in at least 28 other states and the District of Columbia. The states include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Virginia, which formed an access to justice commission on Sept. 13.
An Indiana county court conducted an access and fairness survey last year using an almost identical version of the NCSC form. It found, for example, that Asians had the highest perceived level of fairness, at 100 percent, followed by Latinos at 76 percent, blacks at 68 percent, whites at 59.7 percent and mixed-race individuals at 50 percent, with no appreciable gender difference.
Those with no more than a high school education were less apt to see the system as fair than those with more schooling: 54.7 percent versus 69 percent.
The survey also showed that on access, the lowest access score was for the court website, which fewer than half saw as useful.
The Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness has more than 40 members, including judges, court personnel, academics and practicing attorneys.
One of them, Melville Miller Jr., executive director of Legal Services of New Jersey, says the committee's efforts are especially pertinent to court users from the low-income community, who are more likely to have language access problems and disability challenges and less likely to be represented because of LSNJ's insufficient resources.
Ralph Lamparello, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, which was represented on the committee, says the Bar believes that “the courthouse doors should be open to all, that everyone who comes into contact with the court system deserves to be treated fairly, and that we all deserve to have access to an independent Judiciary."
Grant says the survey is the committee's biggest current initiative and follows efforts to design and implement an access and fairness training program for judges, court staff and sheriff's officers.