Where to start?   Leave a comment

There is ample material about procedural fairness on ProceduralFairness.org for judges and court administrators to start the process of making themselves and their courts more effective. The question is where to begin that process. There are two levels on which procedural fairness principles can be implemented in order to begin improving court outcomes and public satisfaction.

Most immediately, the individual judge can become more adept at demonstrating the criteria of procedural fairness during their interactions with litigants, lawyers, witnesses and others. Relevant tools on ProceduralFairness.org include descriptions of programs that videotape judges while on the bench to provide them feedback to use for self-improvement, as well as video and print resources that can be used to create judicial education courses on procedural fairness. The “Resources” tab includes “tips for judges” that can serve as a check-list to guide their behavior. Similarly, individual court administrators can become more effective by embracing procedural fairness principles in their interactions with subordinates.

Second, an entire trial court or court division can revise its policies and procedures in ways that seem likely to promote behaviors that are perceived as procedurally fair. These changes can be subtle but still highly effective.
Whether the target for change is the individual judge or an entire court, a possible starting point is to reflect on how knowledge of procedural fairness can help you make sense of successes in the past. Here are two examples of hindsight, brought on by learning about procedural fairness. Both examples come from a series of conversations with presiding trial court judges initiated to learn their reaction to a comprehensive judicial branch-wide program promoting procedural fairness principles.

In the first example, the presiding judge of a medium-size court (circa 30 judges) was already a believer in the program. When she became presiding judge, she was alarmed by the pile on her desk of phone message slips and letters, all containing complaints from small claims litigants that they had not had their day in court. When she asked her assistant about the pile, she learned that that such communications were constantly flowing in. Along with several other judges and her court administrator, the presiding judge went through the complaints. They began to notice a pattern – many of the litigants felt that their case had not been adequately considered. The judges identified as the problem their court’s practice of not giving small claims case decisions from the bench as contributing to this sentiment. Instead of giving the decisions from the bench, the court sent litigants form letters, some weeks after their trial, with the equivalent of “won” or “lost” checked off. A change to the letter remedied the problem. The judges identified five or so main reasons that a small claims litigant might end up on the losing side. With the relevant sentences inserted in each letter, the flow of complaints dwindled and then virtually ceased. The new, reasoned approach communicated that the decisions had been reached through a fair process. For the judges, learning about procedural fairness theory made sense of the success of their revised approach to small claims court.

Another “home grown” example of procedural fairness is a practice that surfaced in conversation with the presiding judge of another medium-sized trial court in the same state. Her court has adopted the practice of formally swearing in all new staff as court employees. The presiding judge personally administers the oath, with other judges and court staff as an audience. For this judge, hearing about procedural fairness made sense of the apparent benefits the court has gained from the inclusive, respectful manner in which it treats its employees.

In sum, a look to past experience may be a useful starting point for those considering the potential value of taking a procedural fairness approach to personal improvement or court reform. Ask yourself what has worked and what has not worked, and think if the lens of procedural fairness offers insights into how to do a better job.
David Rottman

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