Get online, not in line

A look at the technology innovations that will drive LASC to a more efficient future

Michelle Williams Court
Samantha P. Jessner
2016 July

The Los Angeles Superior Court (“LASC”) is improving its technology and technological functions in significant ways. Here is a look at the technological innovations that have been implemented and those that are coming. This article will also discuss why the court has prioritized technology upgrades and how the improvements will be funded.

If you have recently used the services of the court either as a litigant or an attorney, you have no doubt noticed some of the LASC’s technological improvements. For example, if you have (unfortunately) received a traffic ticket, you may have noticed that the LASC now has an avatar on its website that helps parties through the process of paying a ticket and other procedures. In addition, the avatar answers frequently asked questions.

If you have filed a motion in a civil courtroom, you have used the Court Reservation System to calendar the motion and pay the filing fee – the closest the court can get to the “Open Table” app where one can make a restaurant reservation online.

If you practice regularly in the Personal Injury departments, you may have delivered your filing to the court electronically rather than have a bike messenger wend her way through traffic in a mad dash to get to the courthouse before it closes. These are a few examples of technological upgrades intended to enable the court and practitioners to work more efficiently and in a more cost-effective way and to increase access to justice.

Why LASC is prioritizing technology

The court’s decision to prioritize technology improvements is not without significant costs. But to understand how essential technology upgrades are to maintaining the fundamental functions of the largest court system in the country, one must have an appreciation for where the court was in terms of technology not that long ago. Here are some “fun facts” that show how important technology improvements are to the LASC.

  • The current case management systems for the Civil and Probate Divisions are DOS-based (short for “disk operating system”). Many readers of this article are too young to remember DOS because it has been out of commission since 2000, although the LASC kept using it.
  • For decades, the court has had no fewer than 12 different case management systems. Because the 12 systems do not communicate with each other, there are essentially 40 data repositories of case information. By the end of 2017, the LASC will have new case management systems in each division (Civil, Criminal, Juvenile, Probate, and Family Law), most of which will be able to communicate with each other.
  • In adoption proceedings, although it sounds apocryphal, the court has never had a computerized case management system. As a result, all adoption records are maintained either by handwritten record or in an Excel spreadsheet. This means that many adoption records are maintained the same way they were more than a hundred years ago.
  • The most fun fact: the LASC maintains paper files that, if they were stacked one on top of the other, would be 13 times taller than Mt. Everest!

By the end of 2017, with the installation of new case management systems for all case types, which will include electronic filing, we will begin to get rid of the reams of paper that the court must store. In addition, all documents, filings, and data in every type of case will be electronically stored in state-of-the-art computer systems (in other words, not DOS). Finally, litigants and lawyers will easily be able to transmit documents to the court by means of electronic delivery and filing.

How the Court can afford to upgrade technology

Given the unprecedented budget cuts in recent years that have greatly affected courts throughout California, one might wonder how the LASC can afford to invest in the technological innovations discussed in this article. A big part of the answer is that several years ago a decision was made that courts in California are required to keep only one percent of their budget in reserve. Previously, a court could keep an unlimited amount in reserve. In other words, individual courts could independently decide how much they wanted to save for a rainy day.

As part of this policy change, the year-end funds cannot exceed one percent of a court’s budget. As a result, two years ago LASC had to spend its reserve funds or lose them. Because these monies are only available once, they cannot be spent on a continuing expense, such as an employee’s salary. The Executive Committee of the LASC, after extensive consideration and analysis, chose to prioritize technological improvements, among other expenses and projects, in spending what the court refers to as “one time” funds. The court’s goals in upgrading technology are to create cost savings, to increase efficiencies in light of the loss of courthouses, courtrooms, and staff, and to increase access to justice.

Technology innovations the Court has implemented

  • Court Reservation System

In response to the budget cuts of several years ago, the LASC not only was forced to lay off employees but also to close courthouses. Because the number of cases the LASC handles did not change, the court was forced to figure out how to do more with less. In other words, the court had to figure out how to work smarter, better, and more efficiently with fewer resources. To that end, the court developed its own court reservation system, or “CRS.” CRS is an online system that enables parties in civil limited and unlimited jurisdiction courts to reserve motion hearing dates.

In the past, if a party wanted to secure a motion date for a hearing, the party had to telephone the court and confer with the courtroom assistant. This meant that staff spent a considerable portion of the day answering the phone and finding a mutually convenient motion date with a party on the telephone.

In 2013, in response to budget cuts, the LASC “hubbed” all of the Personal Injury cases filed in the LASC (except PI cases filed in the Antelope Valley) into three courtrooms in the Mosk courthouse. (There are now five PI courtrooms.) At the time, approximately 15,000 PI cases were being handled in three courtrooms. (The number of PI case filings has increased since 2013.) Because of the number of cases and the loss of staff, the LASC was forced to develop a way for parties to obtain motion reservation dates without having to call an already overburdened staff that was handling about 5,000 cases in each department. (At the time, telephone hours for each courtroom were limited to about two hours per day.)

The answer was to develop an online court reservation system enabling parties to reserve motion dates without having to coordinate with a staff member in a courtroom. The LASC’s Court Technology Services department (headed by Snorri Ogata, the court’s Chief Information Officer) developed the first iteration of CRS (fondly referred to as “Chris”). Every type of motion is given a weight which is determined by the amount of work involved for the research attorney and the judicial officer in preparing the motion for hearing and decision (e.g., a motion to be relieved as counsel is “extra light” and a motion for summary judgment is “extra heavy”). Each judicial officer determines how many motions of a particular weight she is able to hear per day and what days she wants to hear certain types of motions. The availability of dates on CRS is based on this criterion.

Once attorneys and court staff grew accustomed to using CRS, it became evident that CRS does save courtroom staff members’ time. As a result, CRS frees up courtroom staff to concentrate on the many other tasks created by swollen dockets in civil courtrooms. The court then gradually expanded CRS to unlimited courtrooms in district courthouses and a handful of other courtrooms in the Mosk courthouse. The Court Technology Services elicited feedback from staff and judicial officers in courtrooms that had implemented CRS and made changes and improvements to CRS as a result of the feedback received. In January 2016, the court implemented the latest version of CRS in all general jurisdiction courtrooms. Although CRS has taken some getting used to by litigants, court staff, and judicial officers, it has enabled courtroom staff to work more efficiently and allowed litigants to easily make and change hearing dates.

  • PI E-Delivery

On March 1, 2016, the LASC implemented an electronic delivery pilot project in the Personal Injury courts located in the Mosk courthouse and the Antonovich courthouse in the Antelope Valley. The project is called PI E-Delivery. It enables a party to deliver a filing to the court electronically. The goals of this project are (1) to begin to transition the court and court users to filing documents electronically and using electronic records as the official court record; (2) to prepare for the launch of the new case management system later this year, which will eventually include e-filing capabilities; and (3) decrease the lines at the filing windows, or, as we like to say, to get filers out of line and online.

PI E-Delivery requires that the filing party deliver or transmit an electronic version of the filing/document (usually a PDF) and any fees associated with the filing to an E-Filing Manager (“EFM”). The EFM then transmits the filing and fees to the court. (The procedures for PI E-Delivery can be found on the court’s website.) Upon receipt of the document by the court, the court sends the filing party a “Notice of Receipt of Documents” by email, which includes an identifying number. If the filing is submitted in correct form, the court will accept it for filing and send an email notifying the submitting party of the fact that it has been accepted for filing. In addition, the court will email an electronic conformed copy of the document(s). If the filing is rejected for some reason, the court will send the submitting party an email notifying the party of the rejection. If the document is accepted, it is stored in the court’s document management system.

Essentially, the PI E-Delivery project replaces two procedures: (1) fax filing, and (2) having to send a bike or other messenger to the courthouse to file documents with the court. As of March 1, 2016, the court no longer accepts fax filings in general jurisdiction personal injury cases. However, a litigant can still file at the filing window in the Mosk courthouse and the Antonovich Antelope Valley courthouse.

There are fees associated with the PI E-Delivery project. There is a $4.95 convenience fee that is paid to the third party (EFSP or EFM). If a customer doesn’t use the third party vendor’s payment system, the cost is 2.75 percent of the filing and/or first paper fee, plus the $4.95 convenience fee.

There are some limitations on the types of documents that can be submitted to the court by means of the PI E-Delivery system. Specifically, the following documents cannot be submitted: (1) documents involving an attorney-client fee dispute; (2) any filing where the filing party is legally incompetent, is a guardian ad litem, or is under a conservatorship; (3) a Request to Waive Court Fees (FW-001); (4) a Request for Accommodations by Persons with Disabilities (MC-410); (5) a Civil Deposit Slip (LACIV 083); and (6) documents in a PI case deemed complicated and transferred to an Independent Calendar Court.

Along with the development of the PI E-Delivery project, the court also developed a program that enables the Personal Injury judicial officers to access and view all of the documents in a case file online. In addition, it allows a judicial officer to make notes or annotations regarding documents in the system. It also allows the judicial officer to receive legal memoranda from research attorneys and review and make changes to these “work-ups.” This system is called “Judicial BenchView.”

As a result of the functionality of Judicial BenchView, rather than having to pick up a large stack of pleadings to review and analyze a motion and prepare a tentative ruling (and perhaps lug it home over the weekend), the judicial officer is able to review all pleadings online, annotate and highlight if desired, review the research attorney’s memoranda, and prepare a tentative ruling. The judicial officer can also access the Judicial BenchView from the bench during a hearing or proceeding. In short, the Judicial BenchView enables a judicial officer to work in a paperless environment if she wishes.

As of the time of writing of this article, over 300 law firms and attorney services have signed up to use the PI E-Delivery portal. In addition, the number of filings using the PI E-Delivery portal has increased every week in the approximately six weeks that the project has been available as attorneys become more familiar with this service and how to use it.

The PI E-Delivery portal is the first step toward decreasing and someday eliminating those Everest-sized stacks of paper and toward court users, judicial officers, and staff working in a paperless or nearly paperless environment.

Future technology innovations

  • Case management systems and E-Filing

By the end of 2017, the LASC will move from 40 different databases in 12 case management systems that do not easily communicate with each other, if at all, to a new case management system in each case type (Civil (including Unlimited, Limited, and Small Claims), Criminal (including Traffic), Probate (including Mental Health), Family Law, and Juvenile, (the Appellate section will be a hybrid of Civil and Criminal given its docket).

The companies with which the court has contracted to design and implement new case management systems allow for a good deal of customization so that the case management system product is designed to fit the needs of the LASC and its constituents.

For over a year, the court has reassigned Subject Matter Experts (“SMEs”) from all aspects of court operations (e.g., management, judicial assistants, clerk’s office personnel) to work offsite with these two vendors to work through every aspect of the court’s case management processes to design case management systems that will create efficiencies and function smoothly while forging the path to eventual paperless courtrooms. In addition, for each case management system, either the vendor or the LASC’s Court Technology Services department has designed a Judicial BenchView program enabling the judicial officer to view all filings and court documents online in the courtroom, chambers, and remotely, to annotate and highlight documents, and to receive and review memoranda and other documents from research attorneys.

  • Courtroom technology

In most trials or evidentiary hearings, some evidence, if not all, is presented in electronic form. For example, in the digital and visual world that we live in, jurors expect to see a PowerPoint presentation during closing argument. With the increase in the use of body cameras by law enforcement, it is anticipated that digital recordings will be admitted with more frequency in criminal trials. Attorneys and parties often seek to admit evidence that has been electronically recorded in some fashion, whether it is a voicemail message on a cell phone, a scene filmed with a cell phone, a photo taken with a cell phone, or some other type of digital recording.

Historically, if an attorney or party wished to present digitally recorded evidence or an electronic presentation, the attorney or party had to bring equipment to the courtroom to play or display the evidence. This will no longer be the case in certain courtrooms. The LASC is installing a Digital Evidence Presentation System in a number of courtrooms that often hold criminal or domestic violence trials or evidentiary hearings. The system comprises a document camera, laptop hookups for the attorneys, large screen LCD TVs for viewing, and controls for the judge to deactivate the devices if necessary.

The court will provide litigants and court staff with training materials and guides that explain how the system works and what adaptors or cords must be provided by the litigants to enable them to play or show digital recordings and evidence. The intent is to enable litigants to present evidence to the fact finder in an easy and reliable manner and have continuity of equipment throughout the county. It is anticipated that the Digital Evidence Presentation Systems will be installed by this summer.

The LASC’s website

Most people rely on technology in some way every day. It has become more and more common, especially in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, to conduct both personal and business transactions electronically using computers, smart phones and tablets. And this transformation makes sense – it saves valuable time and resources and provides the opportunity to engage in “real time” transactions to create efficiencies in everyday life.

  • Access to justice

The LASC has turned to technology to help it fulfill its mission to serve the community by providing equal access to justice to the public in the face of persistent budget constraints. In addition to hardware and case management software improvements (some of which are discussed herein), the Court has also implemented a plan to optimize its online presence using the website. These improvements are not simply limited to organization and design. In updating and upgrading the website, the Court has added functionality to ease the burden on the public in accessing information and services. These innovations benefit attorneys, self-represented litigants and the public at large.

Get online, not in line!

In March 2015, the Court launched its “Get online, not in line!” campaign designed to encourage Court users to take advantage of the services offered on the Court’s website, saving litigants, attorneys, and others time and money.

The best tangible example of the effect of these innovations to date is the way the Court has leveraged its online presence to provide services and information to users concerning traffic matters. The upgrade started with a redesign – the traffic page offers a comprehensive traffic questions and answers section and an interactive Online Assistant created provides a more tailored experience for the customer. The assistant guides the customer through the traffic pages while asking questions and giving instructions in order to provide information and options specific to the user’s traffic situation. Instructions are provided in English, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Services available include: payment and closing of tickets, requests for payment plans, extension requests, traffic school applications, court date reservations, and ticket status updates. This automated assistant provides audio assistance in all six languages and walks the user through various screens providing information and prompts that aid the user with the completion of the service requested. Prior to the implementation of these features, customers were required to appear before a judicial officer to make requests for payment plans and partial payments could only be made at a courthouse. Now, customers have the option of conducting this business using the website or by way of an in-person visit to a courthouse.

The impact of these improvements is clear. At the Metropolitan Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, the busiest courthouse handling traffic matters, wait time has gone from hours to minutes on most days.

Innovations in the way the Court serves the public in traffic matters is just one of many ways in which the court is implementing technological enhancements to provide improved access to justice. Improvements in the website have been made across the board in every case type.

In the next sections, the article will summarize the website improvements and innovations with an emphasis on those features most applicable to civil practitioners.

  • Design

For those of you who remember the old website design, the new design is a breath of fresh air. The template is the same basic template used by the Judicial Council and many other Superior Court websites across the state. It is informative, organized and user-friendly for novices and experienced internet users alike.

Court users can access the home page at http://www.lacourt.org. The Home Page includes quick links to commonly sought information, such as case summaries and case calendars, the ever-popular court date calculator, information concerning remote appearances, and the filing court locator. Information concerning online services, forms and filings, self-help, jury duty and division-specific information can be accessed by selecting the corresponding tab at the top of the home page.

  • Civil division

The most efficient way to access information and services available relevant to civil cases is to navigate to the Civil Division page (from the Home Page, select the Divisions tab and then select the link to the Civil Division page). This page provides access to a trove of information and services essential to civil practitioners, including online services, information concerning the specialty courts, Court resources, other services and information, news and notices and the civil Q&A.

  • Online services

The new website is designed to be a powerful tool to assist attorneys and the parties in litigating their matters. Available online services include access to civil case document images, party name search, CRS, case calendar, case summary, courtroom information, filing court locator, personal injury e-Delivery and tentative rulings. Are you looking for the courtroom email address or telephone number? Do you want to know how your judge handles ex parte applications, law and motion or trials? Not sure about the e-Delivery Project and how to file your documents? Online services is the place to go for answers to all of these questions, assistance in filing documents via e-Delivery, making hearing reservations and more.

  • Specialty courts

To facilitate uniform dissemination of information about the way the specialty courts operate, the court dedicated a section of the Civil Division page to links to pages dedicated to each of the civil specialty courts – complex civil litigation, unlawful detainer, general jurisdiction personal injury, limited civil collections, limited civil non-collections and settlement. Each page includes information and links to additional resources of value to attorneys practicing in those courts.

For example, the Complex Litigation Program page features an overview of the Program and links to important documents like the complex civil case questionnaire, initial status conference order, and model protective orders. The General Jurisdiction Personal Injury page includes links to all of the General Orders and Notices to Attorneys applicable to cases pending in the personal injury hub. And the Settlement Programs page provides an explanation of the parameters of the settlement program, a list of settlement officers and a link to the settlement conference intake form.

  • Court resources

If you need an LASC civil form or directions to your courthouse, navigate to the court resources tab. There you will find links to every Los Angeles County courthouse which, in turn provide contact and location information as well as access to Google Maps driving directions, and a brief description of parking options and other services available at that location. You will also obtain access to pdf copies of relevant court approved local forms, like the Motion/Opposition/Stipulation to Transfer Complicated PI Case to IC Court and Order, Informal Discovery Conference form, and Request for Refund form. The Los Angeles Superior Court Local Rules and current fee schedule can also be accessed from this page.

  • Other services and information

This section includes links to the case number prefix matrix, information about expedited jury trials and instructions for those wishing to make an appearance in a matter using CourtCall. It also includes links to useful tools for litigators, like model protective orders, efficient litigation stipulations, like agreements concerning discovery conferences and motions in limine.

  • News and notices

The Court periodically issues news releases and notices concerning Court-related activities, changes and projects. This page contains a repository of news releases and notices to attorneys issued by the Court as well as the posting of public notices relating to Court events, annual reports and other Court publications.

  • Civil Q&A

This section includes answers to basic questions about civil litigation. While geared toward self-represented litigants, this section might prove useful to less experienced practitioners as well.

Conclusion

The Los Angeles Superior Court is the largest court system in the United States, serving 9.5 million people living and doing business within 4,000 square miles. Its ability to fulfill its mission to provide equal access to justice depends on the efficient use of resources, especially technological resources. By the end of 2017, the LASC will offer electronic filing in all case types and will have the technological capacity to store all court records electronically. The LASC website will continue to evolve to meet the needs of court users, many of whom conduct daily business regularly over the internet using smart phones, tablets and other portable devices. And the Court will continue its valued partnerships with the bar, justice partners and other stakeholders to meet the important and changing needs of the community.

Michelle Williams Court Michelle Williams Court

Hon. Michelle Williams Court is a judge in the Civil Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a Vice-Chair of the Court’s Technology Committee, chaired by Assistant Presiding Judge Daniel J. Buckley.

Samantha P. Jessner Samantha P. Jessner

Hon. Samantha P. Jessner is a judge in the Civil Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a Vice-Chair of the Court’s Technology Committee, chaired by Assistant Presiding Judge Daniel J. Buckley.

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