Archive for the ‘Videotaping’ Tag

Ending Starting the New Year Right: Building Procedural-Fairness Skills (Part Three)   Leave a comment

For those of you who have been following along on this series, you’ve now gotten a good overview of procedural-fairness principles from Kevin Burke’s 90-minute webinar (still available) and you’ve given some thought to how you might improve your listening skills. The next step is to evaluate how you’re doing at implementing procedural-fairness principles and listening skills on the bench.

A good way to approach self-evaluation is to review your performance on videotape. Several years ago, six New Hampshire judges (Gerry Boyle, Sue Carbon, Ned Gordon, James Leary, Deborah Kane Rein, and Mike Ryan) agreed to be videotaped for a half day on the bench. Kevin and I reviewed the videos and used clips for a procedural-fairness presentation to all the judges in New Hampshire. But the six volunteer judges had their own homework assignment—watching their own videotapes and telling us what they had learned.

Their responses (set out below) show that you can learn a great deal by going through such a process. For the New Hampshire videotaping, the judges simply announced at the beginning of a docket or a hearing that they were being videotaped solely for judicial-education purposes and that the camera would be focused only on the judge. No one objected to having their hearings videotaped in this manner. Court staff members simply set up a camera on a tripod in the corner of a courtroom and let it run.

For a judge who wants to go beyond self-assessment, you could give the video to a trusted colleague, to your spouse, to a communications professor or graduate student, or to someone else whose opinion you would respect. The responses of the New Hampshire judges suggest that you can learn a great deal.

RESPONSES OF NEW HAMPSHIRE JUDGES TO QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR VIDEOTAPES

Question 1: Please give 2 observations of things you noted when watching the tapes that you may not have been aware of or paid sufficient attention to before.

A. Time seems to go faster when you are sitting on the bench than when you are watching the hearing. Parties from other cases who are waiting to be heard are probably bored stiff and must feel that the Court has wasted their time.
B. An enormous amount of time is taken up in completing forms while on the bench, particularly in criminal matters. This diverts the judge’s focus away from the litigants and may make it appear like the judge is not paying attention to what is being said.
C. I was reading and sometimes even writing while defendants were speaking. I was flipping complaints and other paperwork over and reading them while the defendant is presenting his position on bail conditions. Pretty rude.
D. [There] is an appearance of impatience. I say appearance because I believe I am patient but, when presented with dozens of files to get through in a restricted time period, I have a sense of urgency that appears to me to come across as impatience. Rush, rush, rush.
E. I have a tendency to look angry.
F. I nod my head a lot—on the tape it’s annoying. Perhaps in person it’s not as bad (I hope!).
G. I had no idea how much I nod during the course of a presentation. I am not sure whether this is good (because it shows I am affirming that I am listening) or whether it seems that I am agreeing with what they are saying, which can cause some problems.
H. I was already aware of how slow I speak (not just on the bench but generally), but I was not aware of the number of large gaps in time that occur when I am thinking and how much of an opportunity it provides for a litigant/lawyer to fill the gap with unnecessary talk.
I. The first behavior I noted was it appeared as though I was constantly looking down. I have found that in marital cases, the taking of good notes is very important so I look down to write more often than I would in other type cases. I think participants could find my inconsistent eye contact as meaning I was not paying attention.
J. A second behavior was to ask counsel questions before asking the pro se litigant. I do not know how this is perceived by the pro se litigant. I do it only because counsel usually has a better handle on what the issues are.

Question 2: Please list 2 items on which you believe you might be able to improve your on-the-bench performance after viewing the tapes.

A. Don’t call a hearing and then spend 10 minutes trying to figure out the background of the case on the bench. I should read the file in advance or take a recess if necessary in order to appear informed when the hearing begins.
B. I show my emotions easily. I tend to show more warmth toward attorneys I know and respect. I could perhaps be more stoic in that regard, particularly when the other party is pro se.
C. I plan to put the paperwork down and make eye contact with the defendant when s/he is speaking. This change may well further exacerbate the issue of time constraints, but I was truly struck by my putting my head down and doing busy work while someone was speaking to me.
D. I plan to have the courtroom clerk separate those files with multiple or more complex charges so I can review them before the hearing. With such preparation, I will have a better idea of the charges when I address the defendant and not have to read everything for the first time with him/her standing there.
E. It would be helpful to smile and make a more welcoming greeting at the beginning of the case. I always thought I did, but at least from this angle, it seemed very curt.
F. I should try to sound and look more even-tempered. Even though I am questioning the litigant (and suspicious of what he was telling me), it is nonetheless important to appear open-minded and even-tempered.
G. I realized that I need to smile more to make people feel more at ease in the courtroom.
H. I would like to decrease the number of pauses I create. In addition to the problem expressed above, I wonder if it makes people feel that I lack confidence which in turn may make them less confident in me. I am not sure how to do this since it is the way I speak in general, but I might be able to come up with some helpful technique.
I. If I were looking at this tape, I might think that I have all the time in the world to hear these cases because each hearing was longer than probably necessary. It was just an unusual day (generally we are swamped), but each case stayed within the time allowed on the docket (and the last one with the prisoner was just marking time until the plaintiffs (wife and daughter) appeared, which they did right after Gina turned off the camera). I am sure, however, that I am wont to allow people to go on longer than needed. I am not sure that this related to procedural fairness, but it does effect the court calendar. So, I could work on being more efficient while still giving everyone a full opportunity to speak.
J. The first thing I need to work on is to be better prepared before the hearing so that it does not appear that I am unprepared by going through the file to look at the Motion when introducing the case. I try to read the pleadings the morning of the hearings but sometimes when I get to a hearing, I have forgotten what the issues were.
K. The second thing is to remember to explain legal terms to the pro se litigants. I sometimes forget that not everyone speaks legalese.

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

The Value of Video   Leave a comment

Golfers, amateur and professional, use video to watch and analyze their golf swing. Many judges who fancy themselves golfers do this (and even some judges who really are good golfers). But it’s the rare judge who uses video to analyze his or her performance as a judge. Yet video can be valuable here too.

A few years ago, Kevin Burke and I did an educational program for the trial judges of New Hampshire. In advance of it, six judges volunteered to be videotaped on the bench for half a day; Kevin and I then reviewed the videotapes and showed some clips to the group. Evaluation forms from the attendees indicated that they learned a lot from watching the videos and then discussing what was done well and what could be improved.

For the volunteer judges in New Hampshire, we had a follow-up assignment: each of them had to note two things they observed that they hadn’t paid enough attention to before seeing the tapes and to identify two things that could be improved in their on-the-bench performance. All of them gained useful insights from this. If you want to see what those judges learned, take a look at Appendix A to this paper (Procedural Fairness in the Courts of Utah), where I’ve set out in full the New Hampshire judges’ responses.

Doing a video self-assessment this way is not difficult. In New Hampshire, each judge advised those in attendance that a video was being made solely for judicial-training purposes, and that only the judge would be shown on the tape. The camera, set up to the side of the courtroom, was turned on and generally ran for about half a day. While the audio in such a setup is not ideal, it’s adequate for this limited purpose. And if a judge wants to go beyond self-assessment, the tape could be viewed by someone else who could give feedback—a communications professor or graduate student, another judge, the judge’s spouse, or someone else whose opinion the judge would respect.

Steve Leben

Posted February 28, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts

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