Tips for Administrators

The bulk of what has been written to guide applying procedural fairness in courts addresses the needs of judges. The same principles, however, can enhance the performance of court administrators as managers and of their staff in dealing with members of the public.

Here are some ideas likely to prove useful when integrating procedural fairness into the management and operations of a trial court.

The first step to implementing changes in court operations or procedures is a good understanding of procedural fairness as applied to the courts. This powerpoint presentation by Judge Kevin Burke is designed for court administrators and gives an overview on procedural fairness principles and it's practical applications.

In applying procedural fairness in their courts, court administrators should consider several aspects of procedural fairness that arguably are not sufficiently appreciated. In his article, "How to Enhance Public Perceptions of the Courts and Increase Community Collaboration," David Rottman lays out several considerations adminstrators should bear in mind. Tom Tyler has also discussed how implementing procedural justice prinicples can lead to increased physical and psychological health of employees in large organizations in his paper, "Mechanisms of Legal Effect: Theories of Procedural Justice." 

Implementation Efforts

Implementing procedural fairness principles begins with knowing and understanding what those principles are. Judicial education efforts are underway in several states. Washington state pursued a blended learning model for teaching state court leaders about procedural fairness principles. Information on Washington's experience can be found here.

An article entitled "Procedural Fairness in the California Courts" describes one of the most ambitious attempts to implement procedural fairness in government operations. Doug Denton of the California Administrative Office of the Courts describes the initiative to achieve procedural fairness in California's courts from its development to its execution. As part of their procedural fairness initiative, the California court system created a procedural fairness section on their website. Citizens and members of the branch alike can access procedural fairness resources and information about the initiative.

The following recommendations, adapted from Judge Burke and Judge Leben's white paper, "Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction" highlight specific ideas that court administrators can adopt to boost perceptions of procedural fairness, resulting in higher levels of both litigant satisfaction and compliance with court decisions.

WHAT CAN COURT ADMINISTRATORS DO?

  1. Share this website with court employees. Engage them in a discussion of the importance of fairness in our courts. As important as the judge may be in the process, the judge is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the public's interaction with the court system. Conduct courtwide training so that all employees understand the important role they play in providing procedural fairness. How litigants are treated by court employees from the moment they enter the courthouse door—or the moment they encounter security personnel at a metal detector—sets the tone.
  2. Make it a major project for the coming year to analyze the tone of public interaction that is set in your courthouse. Does it convey respect and care for the people who, often in stress, come there? Could it be improved? Many courthouses have child-care facilities, adequate handicapped-accessible areas (now required by the ADA), and domestic-violence waiting rooms. Are there improvements that should be made at your courthouse? Involve all stakeholders (judges, staff, attorneys, litigants, and the general public) in this process.
  3. Treat employees fairly. If court employees do not feel that they are fairly treated in their jobs by court leaders, it is unlikely that they will treat the public any better. The National Center for State Courts' CourTools has a specific measurement tool for employee satisfaction. Court administrators need to strive to create a courthouse work environment that doesn't breed cynicism.
  4. Work to provide sufficient support staff so that judges are not distracted by activities that may interfere with their perceived attention to the presentation of cases in the courtroom. For example, if a judge is fiddling with tape recorders and making constant notes of tape counter numbers, that judge is not going to be looking at the litigants and attorneys and is not going to be perceived as having paid careful attention to the parties' dispute. There are many roles that judges take on in understaffed courts and courtrooms. Those roles should be carefully monitored for possible interference with the judge's primary role—hearing and deciding the matter at hand in a way that clearly adheres to the requirements for a high public perception of procedural fairness. Having judges perform duties that might more appropriately be done by a clerk should especially be avoided in high-volume dockets.
  5. Provide opportunities for courthouse visitors to evaluate their experience before they leave the courthouse. Doing so communicates respect and gives an opportunity for voice.

A full set of recommendations can be found in their paper "Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction."