The cities of SeaTac, Washington, and Burbank, California, are located in different corners of the west coast, but they are neighbors in cyberspace.
Both cities have municipal courts with home pages on the World Wide Web.
In Washington, California and around the nation, trial courts are using the Internet for a variety of reasons. Courts are putting up Web home pages to bolster customer service and provide information to the public. Courts are also using e-mail or searching the Internet to obtain legal information and do research.
The Internet is a computer network that allows courts to make information available to the public at a low cost. For some courts the immediate bottom line is important and they may go on-line in an effort to save postage and telephone costs incurred in responding to public inquires. For other courts, it is clear that "the Internet is the future." Regardless of whether or not the Internet translates into productivity gains today, these courts recognize that judges and staff need to become familiar with the technology. For this latter group, using the Internet now is warranted as a necessary investment in education and training.
Visiting some of the of district and municipal courts with home pages on the Web reveals a common approach to the content provided. Similar to the kiosks that are popular in some jurisdictions, the information courts place on the Internet typically provide answers to frequently asked questions: what are the hours of the clerk*s office, where do I go to pay a traffic ticket, how do I contact the public defender? The Burbank Municipal Court, with the easily remembered address of http://www.courts.org, uses four categories, as follows: (1) small claims; (2) civil; (3) criminal; and (4) traffic.
The best municipal court Web sites focus on a chosen area rather than trying to cover all topics equally. A court may choose initially to provide more information about domestic violence and less about small claims filing, with the expectation that more information will follow in the months ahead. Statistics of visitors* usage of each separate Web page within the court*s Web site are easily monitored and can help the system administrator to expand and strengthen the most popular areas.
One of the best municipal court sites, South Orange County, California, Municipal Court, discusses jury duty and small claims filing, as does nearby Los Angeles Municipal Court. DuPage County has a history section of Illinois courts. This illustrates the opportunities courts have on the Internet to serve the school population that makes up a large portion of Internet users.
Perhaps the most ambitious use of the Internet is in Pima County, Arizona, where run-of-the-mill information is provided on-line and also attempts are being made to do business there. After noting there are 34,000 Internet users in the court*s jurisdiction, the court goes on to explain that it hopes to accept filings of small claims petitions over the Web.
Many court pages consist only of an address or telephone directory. The Houston, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama, Municipal Courts are examples of this basic approach. A step ahead is to add descriptive text to each of the court departments to help steer the public toward the appropriate venue, as the Albemarle County, Virginia, courts have done. The City of Portsmouth has gone even slightly further by adding, "The Answer Book for Jury Service," prepared by the Judicial Council of Virginia. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a Web page listing only court addresses. It is a good way to try the Internet. At some point more substantive information should supplement the initial, skeletal posting, as in the Virginia examples, so that the public can make better use of the service.
Courts use the Internet to reach out to the public, as described above. This is only one facet of the Internet. Courts are also using the Internet to send e-mail in the course of business. With e-mail, a purchase order can be sent to the paper vendor, for example. There are educational opportunities available. Judges can receive information on Supreme Court cases via e-mail (a free service from Cornell Law School). Legal research is possible for many jurisdictions (again, it*s free). Many states have their Supreme Courts and Courts of Appeal already on-line with full-text slip opinions.
Efficiencies will prove even greater in those states with all their courts on the Internet. The addition of the trial courts--both general and limited jurisdiction--is the final piece in the puzzle for those courts currently offering Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Web pages. Having all courts plugged into the Internet allows for sharing of court information through e-mail and so-called Intranet Web pages, referring to the tying together of an organization. The Intranet approach is spreading like wildfire in the private sector.
While some pioneering district and municipal courts have already
set up home
pages, most courts are still weighing their options and learning
the technology. When a municipal court considers whether to have
page there are three basic questions to pose:
? What content would the court provide? ? Would each staff member also have an e-mail account and Internet access?
? Is there sufficient interest in maintaining the service after it is set up and running?
Since most courts have access to the city or county Web server, there may be very little, if any, cost for putting up a home page. A consultant is not necessary to place text and graphics on the World Wide Web. Most courts have modest presentations created and maintained by a self- trained individual or small group of in-house computer staff. Obviously, the rule that "you get what you pay for" applies here as elsewhere. Thus, pride of wearing home spun aside, a $50,000 consultant*s fee may be worthwhile in an effort to take full advantage of the efficiencies and productivity enhancements available by using the Internet.
If a court set up a home page independently of any other government agency, costs would run roughly $50 per month but can be done for as little as $20 per month, with costs relating to how many users are expected to be on the system at any one time. This assumes one or two e-mail accounts. Costs would rise roughly $5 per month for each additional e-mail account. There are substantial discounts available for larger organizations so the cost of e-mail can drop to pennies per person.
After these monthly access charges, there is no expense to the courts for providing information to the public through the Internet. Basically, an unlimited number of people can view the information and print it if needed. Changes made to a central set of files, called HTML files (for hypertext markup language), result in each user seeing the most current, up to date information at all times. This is the primary advantage of distributing information on the Internet instead of in printed, hardcopy format. The National Institute of Justice articulated this in its Research Action bulletin (March 1996): "New NIJ documents are now available online as well as in hard copy and can be downloaded by users and printed via their own computers. For users, electronic publication means information that can be kept current, and for the supplier it means savings in printing and distribution." In sum, the cost avoided using the Internet but incurred in distributing printed information is both the initial set of documents and that of regular updates.
What are some of the improvements to municipal court Web sites that are likely to occur in the future?
1. Audio and video features. None of the court sites has yet tried to use audio or video capabilities that distinguishes the Web from previous approaches, such as "gopher" or "telnet." If one wishes to compare kiosks to the Internet, note well that the most effective part of the kiosk is the mixture of video and text. Internet sites are not yet at the level of kiosks but soon could be.
2. Live updates of information, more or less, such as case filing data, calendars or scheduling should be provided. Currently, the sites are static text information that does not change. As any member of the MTV-generation will tell you: "the more things stay the same, the less interested I am." The Internet is peculiarly adapted to automatically provide updated information and the race is on, with all spoils to the winner, to see who can install creative upgrades to replace the static nature of court pages.
3. Languages other than English. It seems an increasing number of people in court do not speak English. The Web is an inexpensive way to make foreign language court materials available to public libraries and community social service providers. The high cost of translating documents means the first sets of materials to be posted will be those already in paper, hardcopy format in other languages. Some courts are including Spanish translations of their materials, such as Yakima County, Washington. The wisdom of presenting information in English and Spanish appears in politics, too. The New Mexico Secretary of State posts the Governor*s annual "State of the State" in both English and Spanish. The Canadian system of bi-lingual English and French information on the Internet or the Swiss approach of multi-lingual information is impressive in this regard.
4. Commerce on the Web. Tools for actually doing business on the Internet are available and are slowly gaining acceptance. When it is easy, reliable and secure we can anticipate courts taking advantage of Internet commerce. After all, it is essentially a method to accept payments without having to provide a clerk*s time in the form of customer service.
In conclusion, the most important part of the Internet is that it is easy for courts, clerks and judges to post information. Accordingly, start-up expenses and initial training costs are minimized. The second most important feature is that the public can freely look at the information. This reduces court costs and provides important customer service. Of course, a municipal court Web site should not attempt to answer all questions or bear expectations that it will prove a panacea to a clamoring public. Nevertheless, modest goals of providing information to the public at a low cost are sufficient to warrant the experiment.