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Archive for Thursday, July 14, 2011

Kansas chief justice reports on court study

July 14, 2011

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— Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said Thursday he's pleased with the suggestions gathered at the halfway point of a task force study of the state's court system, hoping to improve access to justice and reduce costs.

Nuss said the 25-member panel has received numerous recommendations for using existing technologies in the court system, as well as improving efficiencies for residents, attorneys, court staff and judges. A final report is due in January, in time he said to make requests of the Legislature for funding or any necessary changes in law.

"I think people are willing to consider a number of options to improve the system and make better use of taxpayer dollars," he said.

Many of the recommendations are that the state district and appellate courts implement electronic filing of documents and make greater uses of video-conferencing for pretrial hearings.

"There are a number of states that are ahead of us on electronic filing and video conferencing," Nuss said. "We're trying to play catch up."

Nuss said the biggest hurdle to the new systems is funding. Legislators approved enough funds for the current fiscal year to operate the courts without closing offices early or staff layoffs.

"That doesn't give us any maneuvering room," he said.

Nuss said it would take about $6 million to create the electronic filing system, similar to what the federal courts in Kansas have been using since 2003. Legislators deleted $800,000 for the project during final budget negotiations in May.

The system could be funded through increased filing fees once the initial start-up money is provided, Nuss said, as well as limited federal grants to help with the early development.

"One of our very large concerns in the process, and by the commission, is pretty soon you are going to price people out of the courthouse," he said.

Electronic filing would help court staff process documents and reduce demands on time, he said, adding that some of the work in district courts with heavier caseloads could be parsed out to rural counties to improve the workflow. The actual court proceedings would remain in the urban county, such as Shawnee for example, even if a clerk in Wallace County entered the documents in the system.

Nuss said video conferencing also would save money for law enforcement, the Department of Corrections and attorneys by eliminating the need to transport individuals to the courthouse for routine, pretrial hearings.

The chief justice said the task force had been meeting statewide and has drawn more than 600 people. The group met Wednesday in Topeka and will meet again in late September to review the recommendations.

My sense is that people in Kansas are overall very pleased with their court system. They believe they are able to obtain justice," Nuss said. "They were displeased to learn in the spring of 2010 that we had to close courts because there was no money."

The courts were forced to close early in 2010 because of declining state revenues that prompted cuts in the operating budget. Nuss said the message to fund the courts to keep them open has been heard in Topeka, as evidenced funding levels for the current fiscal year.

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