Edited and condensed for clarity.
Michelle Barclay: Your court has created a text notification system for civil cases. Judge Kirk, please tell us a little bit about how that got started.
Judge Kirk: We have been looking at doing something like this for 2 years in our small claims court. Our court applied for and we received a High Volume Court Simplified grant from the National Center for State Courts. This grant and technical assistance really helped us target inefficiencies. Our goal was to lower the number of no-shows and the number of defaults. We also wanted to help people find the court more easily so they do not suffer the terrible consequences of missing court.
Tim Ezell: I was in the clerk’s office when the system rolled out. The parties to the case have the option of receiving text notifications from the court once they file their petition to initiate the case or when they respond back with their answer. Before the court text notification system, we had too many people who would lose their notice or just not show up. Now they get 2 text reminders; one reminder 2 weeks out and then a second reminder the week before their court date. The reminders have detailed information so people with them do not have to stand in line to get information or study a screen to figure out where they need to go (which can make them late). If they are late to court, they may have a default judgment issued against them.
Barclay: It is a voluntary notification, do most people opt in?
Ezell: Yes, when I was in the clerk’s office, the majority of people opted in. The attorneys opt in as well.
Barclay: Does a company provide the text messaging service?
Ezell: We worked with our case management system, Tyler, to use the text messaging service that they offer.
Barclay: How much does it cost?
Ezell: Less than one cent. It costs the Court about $10 to $15 a month. The text includes notice about the exact location, the courtroom number, and the time of your hearing.
Barclay: A question for either of you- what do you think are the best features of this program?
Judge Kirk: I think reducing the default rate and helping people actually get to court on time. With our case volume, we give people about 30 minutes to get to court. And then we start calling the default calendar, which means if you have gotten lost in the courthouse or that you ended up someplace else, there is a good chance your case will be in a default status. The notification bears heavily on the outcome of people’s cases.
Barclay: Would you say that this text notification system improves justice?
Judge Kirk and Ezell: YES
Barclay: When one defaults on a small claims case, what happens?
Ezell: The person who defaults would get a judgment against them and then the other side could pursue garnishments or could seek a lien against their house. People can come back and request to reopen the default, but it is harder at that juncture of the case. Plus, if a person has gotten lost in the court building and missed his or her court date, they’ve lost their chance to be heard, their chance to speak.
Judge Kirk: A default will likely have dire financial consequences. And, the person in default will have to navigate the court system even more. The defaulting party would have to make the case that they were lost in the courthouse. There is a standard of proof problem and things can get more complicated and costly than necessary.
Barclay: Is there anything about the notification system that you wish could be improved?
Judge Kirk: I wish the text system could be connected to a ‘check-in’ feature and/or a wayfinding or google maps so that the moment one stepped inside the court building perimeter, we could know that the parties were here but also help provide navigation assistance to the litigant coming into court. There are 3 separate court buildings in Fulton so it can be confusing and difficult to timely figure out where to show up. CHOA has a feature like this to help parents and children get to where they need to be in a large hospital complex. I would love the system to also work a bit like the airlines, you check in at the airport and your individual plane staff knows that you are in the airport. The plane staff may not hold the plane, but I, as a judge, would have more flexibility to hold a hearing for 15 minutes if I knew that a party was trying to get to our courtroom. Our goal is to get a resolution in these cases so those additional features would be a huge help to our citizenry and to the courts.