4 Pillars for Successful Court Records Management - Part 2

ECM Technology

Fully leveraging ECM requires using the appropriate technologies across these six activity groups: Capture, Workflow, Access, Integrate, Measure and Store.

CAPTURE involves

  1. Getting an object such as a document or a file (whether physical or digital) into the ECM system (ECMS)
  2. Classifying the captured documents and files within the ECMS. In other words, get the object from outside the ECMS (from, say an external filer) into the ECMS, in such a way that, unlike a huge dumpster, the object may be located when and as needed.

With robust ECM, that means being able to receive/acquire any file type from any physical location. Courts have to be able to capture documents filed from litigants, attorneys and other agencies such as prosecutors, law enforcement, service agencies, etc. The documents may be filed at the court, received through standard mail, emailed or e-filed. Non-digital objects - paper documents - must be converted to digital objects. Paper documents are typically captured into the ECM through scanning. They arrive in various different forms. Most unstructured would be free-form text, graphics, and pictures, with no particular order to where any specific information might reside. Letters, police or other reports with narrative descriptions and diagrams, affidavits and so forth, will be largely unstructured.

Some documents may be template-based, so that at least some of the information (for example, case title, case number, party names, etc.) is located in known positions on the paper. Court provided or commercially available user forms for matters such as Small Claims cases, Abuse Prevention Motions and Affidavits, Small Estate Probate, and so on, provide much of the data in specific locations. The level of structure can vary. For example, while a Birth Date field may request entry in MM/DD/YYYY format, a user might enter a January 1, 1949 birthdate as Jan. 1, 1949 instead of 01/01/1949. Or the user might inadvertently enter the gender (M or F) in the Birthdate field.

The good news about basic scanning is that since it is really just a picture of the document things like legibility, internal data formatting and so on do not really matter. What you get is an electronic image of what came in.

On the downside, it is really just a picture. Without automation tools, such as intelligent document and data capture, processing, indexing, and getting useful information require that someone physically look at the scanned image. While they may take up less physical space, scanned images can be even harder to manage and use.

Electronic document files may be captured through an interface with the ECM or more commonly these days through an Electronic Filing System (EFS). Electronic files also come in different types. An electronic image, including a scanned document, like paper, is basically a picture.

Many electronic documents, and perhaps most through an Electronic Filing System, may be "searchable" (eg, Searchable PDF). Such a document, while not easily editable, can be searched and data elements extracted as they are found, using basic text search tools. For documents with clear text, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology can "read" unformatted text.

Editable documents (eg., Microsoft Word document) cannot only be searched using basic search tools, they can be edited. However, for official court records, unfettered editability may not be desirable. Generally, official court records will not be stored in editable format.

When documents come into the court's system, knowledge workers must read/review them, categorize them, index them, find the relevant data within them, enter the relevant data into the court's Case Management, Jury Management or other systems, and redact any personal information that should not be made generally available. Then, the knowledge workers must determine the next steps for processing the various documents and direct them to their next processing stages.

Because a significant portion of the documents that must be captured are fairly "primitive", whether as paper, images, or relatively unstructured files, appropriately classifying them, locating sensitive data and removing it with redaction software represents a challenge. Hand-drawn information and messy handwriting can exceed the capability of basic search tools to extract, no matter the format of the text.

Intelligent data capture tools will assist the knowledge workers in their review tasks by directing and highlighting the portions of the document of interest, thereby slashing the amount of review time required per document. For instance, "rules" could highlight date fields that are either clearly out of range (birth dates in the future; scheduled dates in the past) or that are not in the expected MM/DD/YYYY format. They can find and flag potentially confidential information, like Social Security Numbers or minor's names, even in unstructured, free form text narratives, like Police Reports.

Even when it comes to less clear, perhaps hand-written information, "smart" functions can "read" the documents much as a human being does, by analyzing and assessing shapes, sizes, patterns, and so on (a sort of "artificial" or "trained electronic" intelligence). They can highlight information such as names, case numbers, dates, referenced agencies, and any other type of pre-defined information anywhere in the document.

Attention to and use of powerful, smart capture technology will go a long ways toward eliminating the infamous GIGO - "Garbage In - Garbage Out" syndrome. Furthermore, it will position the court to fully leverage the capabilities of the ECM technology components discussed below, by providing the right information to the right places at the right times, every time, with less effort and greater speed.

Process or WORKFLOW refers to what happens to documents - and what actions documents trigger, based on business rules defined by the court. For example, the receipt of an Answer may trigger the scheduling of some form of court appearance. When a Motion and Form of Order for a continuance are filed, they may need to be sent to the appropriate knowledge worker to determine how to respond, and perhaps be sent to a judge for signature.

The Workflow engine, just like a clerk, will consider what a document is (say, a Motion to Substitute Attorney), who it is from (the original attorney), what case it pertains to (the case number), and what information it contains (grounds for substitution and information for the new attorney) to determine what should happen next (automatically approve; send to Judge or someone else for decision, etc.). Just like the clerk, the Workflow engine must have the correct information from and about the document to appropriately process it; and it must know the correct rules, as defined by the clerk-knowledge worker.

Workflow can assure that every document gets processed according to established rules. For instance, matters will not be sent to be scheduled for trial before all parties have adequately responded or been defaulted. Where multiple processing branches can proceed in parallel (eg., when a hearing is set that may require special service like security or a translator, the calendar is updated, parties are notified, and action requests are forwarded to the people responsible for providing the services, with "ticklers" set to assure timely responses from each). When an expected action is overdue (judge signature, case being set for hearing, response from service provider) the Workflow will alert the appropriate person to take follow-up action.

The next post will take a deeper look at power and capabilities of Workflow. Workflow is routinely cited as the most beneficial aspect of ECM implementation, resulting in the greatest financial, quality and efficiency gains, as well as improved security, better customer satisfaction and improved staff and judicial morale.

ECM provides anywhere, anytime, fully text searchable ACCESS to court documents. The public and business partners get online access. Internal court get access without the need to send for, pull and transport files. The file room is no longer a bottleneck.

With this power comes the challenge of assuring that information committed to the care and custody of the court is appropriately protected and only made available to those who have a right to see it. At the case level, the Case Management System (CMS) must appropriately control access. So, for example, only authorized personnel should be able to view Juvenile Dependency matters, cased under Sealed Indictment, or Mental Health matters.

The document and data levels must be controlled through the ECM. While a case (say, a dissolution of marriage) may be public, and its documents may also be generally public, some documents may contain confidential information (minor names, Social Security numbers, etc.). This confidential information must be redacted before the documents may be made available for general viewing. Fortunately, the court can use tools that "read" the documents, as described in the Capture discussion above, to find information that should be redacted.

Having identified the information to be redacted, the confidential information must be rendered no longer available to unauthorized viewers. The most robust solution is creation of a "redacted" copy of the document, which viewers not authorized to see confidential information will see, while the "original" (and official court record) will remain available to authorized users. In this way, the court can eliminate the need to individually "vet" all persons who request access to files that may contain confidential information and/or perform page-by-page review to find and remove restricted identifiers.

INTEGRATION of the ECM with other court systems, most notably, the CMS but also perhaps Jury Management and Custody Management, has two critical aspects.

First, people should be able to see documents and case management information from the same place (sometimes called Single Signon). When reading a document, for example, the reader should be able to see what is scheduled on the case. Likewise, when looking at the Case Register, the viewer should be able to easily access documents that are referenced. Different technological implementations of this integration carry important tradeoffs. For example, tightly integrated systems come at a cost of potential document unavailability at times of CMS maintenance downtime. More loosely integrated systems have some overhead to keep the systems in sync, but may provide greater flexibility and potential security.

Second, "Reducing data entry" (and particularly duplicate date entry) has forever been a Holy Grail of court management. Much of the information that the CMS (and other systems) need is contained in the documents. The ability to auto-docket documents results in higher quality, much faster turnaround and substantially reduced workload.

Auto-docketing relies on and is made possible by high quality (remember GIGO) Capture and Process. Once a document, say a Small Claims Answer is Captured, the Workflow engine can update the CMS with all the information (verified as needed), including addresses, dates, and so forth, either set a hearing date or send to the scheduling clerk, and generate notices as necessary.

The court should be certain to MEASURE, including robust monitoring, tracking and reporting capabilities as it implements ECM. At the early stages, it will identify (often in "real time") bottlenecks, recurring errors, need for more training or resources. Cases that do not get set for days or weeks after they have become "at issue" can be identified and processed. Matters, like routine Motion dispositions, that are backlogged in staff person's work queue (electronic "in box") may indicate the need to redistribute some of that person's workload. Certain types of action or process, like certain types of documents being repeatedly mis-coded by the document creators, can be identified, and appropriate training provided.

Later, the Measure functions will provide the critical data needed to determine the financial and operational impacts of implementing the ECM and establish the Return on Investment. For example, in Genessee County, Michigan, the Friend of the Court (family law) division was able to identify that Appointment time was reduced from 6 weeks to 2 weeks, Modification turnaround time was reduced from 6 months to 45 days, and their problems with expired warrants still showing as active on their system were eliminated. These types of data provide powerful statements to funding authorities and the public to justify the investment in ECM.

Over the long term, the Measure functionality will give the managers and decision makers the tools they need to assess productivity, catch errors before they become critical, determine how to prevent them from recurring in the future, and identify opportunities to reengineer court operations.

A strong argument exists that on the basis of security of document STORAGE alone, an ECM could be cost-justified. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina included, among other things, the complete loss of the files of many of the courts in the New Orleans area. In many cases, looking to business partners such as prosecutors and attorneys proved futile, as they too had lost all their files. A disgruntled litigant drove his pickup truck through the front doors of the Marion County, Oregon Circuit Court one Sunday morning. When trapped inside, he set fire in the basement. Fortunately, fire fighters fairly quickly contained the blaze. Unfortunately, it turned out the courthouse ceilings contained asbestos, as a result of which, no human could set foot inside for months. The court records were beyond reach. The examples go on and on, both big and small.

Beyond physical security, consider temporal security, otherwise known as "record retention." E-stored documents can be managed and purged (or made less generally accessible) with much greater accuracy, and much less staff time, than manually stored records. Just the cost of retrieving and returning "closed" files from long term, deep storage when they miraculously come back to life is significant enough to provide great financial incentive to implement ECM.

How does a court store "redacted" documents? This question entails policy decisions, but in any case, both the flexibility to decide and the ability to implement will be profoundly more straightforward, manageable and secure with the right combination of automated redaction tools and ECM with workflow.

Investing in top-notch technology for all the ECM components, then putting in the effort to actualize them, enables the court to maximize its ability to leverage ECM.


About the Author: Jeff Barlow

Jeffrey Barlow has spent over 35 years working with courts, both as an attorney and as an information systems professional. After practicing law for ten years in the private and public sectors, he earned a second bachelor’s degree in computer science and joined the State of Oregon court system’s Information Systems Division. Jeff has participated in and led major court technology development and implementation projects as a Systems Analyst, Business Analyst, Project Manager, Project Office Manager, and Deputy CIO. He also holds an MBA and is certified by the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional.