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EXCLUSIVE - Modernising legacy Case-Flow Management at County Court of Victoria through an unorthodox approach

Roger J. Fredman, Director - Court Technology, County Court of Victoria talks to OpenGov about making the Court ecosystem more efficient. Mr. Fredman tells us about investments in their document management system, since the replacement of their 15 year old Case Management System (CMS) is on a longer timeline (both due to available options and funding).  Functionality generally delivered by a contemporary CMS is now being delivered through their document management system iManage, with extended capability in intelligent forms, workflow, peer-to-peer document sharing and record management. This presents an example of how an innovative, unconventional approach can drive digital transformation within budgetary constraints.

Mr. Fredman has extensive experience in ICT leadership roles in both the public and private sectors. He has been in his current role since 2014. Prior to this, he was with CenITex, the Victorian government’s ICT shared services agency, and was the CIO of Jefferson County (Denver area) and Orange County California.

How central a role is technology playing in the operations of the Court?

The County Court of Victoria became the first end-to-end electronic court for criminal and appeal cases, in Australia, in April 2015. We are in the process of adding the civil jurisdiction as well which includes Common Law and Commercial divisions.

What are your primary areas of focus in terms of court technology?

We are focusing on improving the ecosystem of the Court. The practice (law firms, OPP, etc.) have documents that need to be lodged. So, the first area is electronic filing. The second area is the management of the documents, once they are received. This involves approval or rejection of the lodged documents, and then storing them in the document management system, with a logical representation in the form of an electronic case file (mimics the paper file, along with all of its colour-coding and classifications). Then there’s the third area which is the case management aspect, which manages events and references those lodged documents. The flow is electronic filing, feeding into document management, with events being organised by the case management function.

Are there any ongoing projects in these areas?

We are in business-as-usual (BAU) mode for electronic filing because we have completed that first piece. We are in evaluation (and then funding) mode for the case management piece, the third one. We began using the case management system 15 years ago, and its roots go back 30 years. That project is about legacy modernisation but we are waiting on other efforts to evaluate which direction we might take.

In the middle, we have iterative cycles of improvement for the document management environment. Because we are taking a more methodical path concerning the CMS, we are gleaning everything we can out of the document management environment. Our approach is a bit unorthodox. We are adding intelligent forms and workflows to document management, with adjunct capabilities in records management.

We are building all the potential logic we can out of the document management system and stretching or leveraging its ability.

The judges look at the case dashboard now, instead of a paper folder. The paper folder would have tabs on it. The dashboard has been designed in such a way, that the visual representation the judges are used to, is retained.

They can see all the different types of documents, whether it is bail or remand, whether it is a committal notice, indictment, order, transcript, etc.  They also have a view of their schedules, and indications for whether there were late filings or if pending (unapproved) documents exist which came in at the last moment.

It offers judges different ways of slicing and dicing the information. This is all in our document management system. That’s the end-result, to allow them to be as efficient as possible through what we term WorkCentre (the electronic case file).

What are the features of these intelligent forms?

When entering data to submit to the Court, instead of free forms, we are allowing only certain information to be entered. The simplest example would be drop-down boxes. If you are the defence, you would only get the drop-down box for defence and that would only present documents which are pertinent to a defence file.  Same for prosecution.

What are the timelines for these projects?

We expect the CMS project to take 2-3 years including everything from the procurement and the technology itself, to data migration and organisational change management. The extension of the document management end-to-end electronic system from Criminal and Appeal jurisdictions to Civil will take around 6-12 months.

Do you need to share information with higher or lower courts or other government organisations?

The Victorian government is focusing on sharing of information. It will help improve services. Take for instance, a domestic violence incident. The Police, courts, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are all involved. DHHS has case-workers for families at risk, but without information sharing, they have no idea of what’s been going on prior to their involvement.  

That’s sharing of documents across government as a whole. We are only in the “talking” stages at this moment and considering how any new system might accommodate this.

When it comes down to the court, cases generally begin at the Magistrates’ Court. There’s a committal hearing and at that point, it comes over to County Court. We exchange case information overnight. So, the Magistrates’ Court system has a case file. They send us the pertinent information overnight. We then have the initial directions hearing the next day and start populating the case from there on. We have feeds from other sources as well, such as the Legal Services Board, which help verify the identity of registered practitioners.

We also share and distribute information. Our case management system displays information such as court case schedules, the parties and courtroom locations. That data also feeds into our building management system, to unlock the court rooms and to turn on the lights, ventilation and air-conditioning.

At the end of the trial, we also share and publish the sentencing remarks. That is not publicly available now. But it is available to the journalists in an audio recording, so that they can report to the public.

We want to promote accessible and affordable justice. We want transparency of the court process, so that people feel more comfortable, when they do need to engage with the courts. One of the ways is to provide an improved website, which will guide people through the process of the court. That will also be able to display court documents, results and sentencing remarks, within a couple of hours after the trial.

What are the challenges you have faced with modernising legacy systems and how has that been done?

The primary issue with legacy systems is finding a contemporary platform that will accommodate the decades of changes and customisations that we have made to run the court and meet legislative requirements.

In preparation to select a new system, we are addressing our business processes first. The review will ensure that we are doing things right or, as efficiently as possible. It will also be an opportunity to eliminate (wasteful) work. Then the time will be right to actually start investing in selecting suitable contemporary case flow management platforms.

The challenge with any migration of any system, whether it is old or new, is data. You have to analyse and determine what data do you really need. What’s nice-to-have or what’s absolutely required by regulation or legislation.

How do you incorporate changes in regulations or new regulations?

When legislation comes down, say from Parliament, we have a new process to implement. Generally, it’s not a guideline, it’s a rule.

The lack of flexibility of systems can restrict our ability to quickly incorporate that legislation. We might be required to go through an arduous and costly manual process. One of the benefits of a contemporary case-flow management system is they generally allow you to add new functionality very quickly.

With our current systems and ageing development platform, we take days to weeks to do that, in some cases months. The languages are old, the databases are complex and because of years of ideas, we have ended up with more and more tables in our databases (which makes reporting extremely complex).

Untangling and making sure of what you want to bring over from the legacy systems to the new platform is a critical process.  It is an opportunity to reduce complexity.

What measures are you taking for protecting the sensitive information held by the Court?

While our goal is to be as transparent and open to the public as possible, we do have a significant amount of confidential and protected data.  Our controls are multi-faceted in that it can be role-based, secured at the application level, confined by case type or other methods. Our systems classify users as being able to access specific levels of information, based on whether you are a Registry representative, a manager, a member of the police or the general public.  They are further restricted by type of documents, whether there are suppression orders and issues like that. It is based on types of cases as well, such as sex offence cases.

We also have infrastructural level security through firewalls, proxies that allow servers and applications to connect to the network. Right now, we are more concerned about protecting our data, which restricts our ability to be more open than not.

It is because of two things, one being the type of information we have. The second is our network is a legacy environment. So, we have to err on the side of a closed network. The government wants to “open up”, but they also don’t want to open anything inappropriate, without adequate security measures.  This is why flexible, configurable systems are critical.  Everything now is generally a costly programming change.

There is an added level of authentication for documents. To use the electronic filing system, you have to be a registered Legal Services Board member, such as a lawyer or a paralegal. When a practitioner goes to electronically lodge, we can verify their identity and let them lodge the documents.

Are you using any big data tools?

The court actually has small data (in terms of size). But we still have a need to understand the data and mine it appropriately for added value (so it is “big” on the evaluation side). We are firming up our data warehouse repositories. We also have multiple sources of data. We must be able to aggregate that data.

We have made investments in dashboard and visualisation tools to help us “see” the data beyond what spreadsheets can offer, and display it differently to make it more consumable.

We have also invested in a smattering of machine language, more so to populate data, than to produce reports. We are trying to move from static reporting to predictive analytics through approaches such as these.

People can wait over a year to come to trial. That is a long time, especially if you are a victim. We are trying to manage time-to-trial better by using analytics. It can help us gain improved understanding of the flow of our cases, where we have downtime (waste) and where we can reduce the queue.

Do you face any challenges in the adoption of new technology?

There can be resistance when you try to take a big stack of papers away from a judge, who is used to touching the paper case files. It is a natural human reaction regardless of the industry.

We have a very conscious campaign in the areas of organisational and cultural change management. We were very conscious of the journey that we are on over two years ago. When the technology was ready, we took a hard look at whether we were ready organisationally. We made a call to delay the launch of the system by a few months, to get people more comfortable with the new technology and approach. It worked extremely well and the take-up was impressive.  Do we still have printers?  Yes.  Do some people still print?  Yes, but they are only printing selective documents which we anticipate will reduced or be eliminated with time.

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