The Office of Administrative Courts (OAC) is Colorado’s centralized administrative court system and provides administrative law hearings to more than 50 state agencies, counties and other entities. The OAC enables both agencies and citizens to have certain disputes resolved while avoiding the time and expense of litigation in district court. In 1976, the state’s General Assembly created the Division of Administrative Hearings as a central panel of administrative law judges to decide workers’ compensation, human services, licensing, and a variety of other cases.
The OAC has a main office in Denver and two regional offices, one in Colorado Springs and another in Grand Junction.
The Office previously utilized two separate, incompatible databases to docket or schedule hearings. The two databases were developed several years apart, were written in different computer languages and collected different amounts and types of data. These two systems created numerous difficulties and inefficiencies for the Office of Administrative Courts. As the volume and complexity of the data in these databases increased over time, the Office encountered a growing number of problems with managing the data.
“It wasn’t stone tablets or quill pens, but it was pretty close,” according to Donna Childers who serves the OAC as lead clerk for the General Services Unit. “The most obvious problem was people were showing up for hearings and we would have no record of their hearing. You see it’s not uncommon for information to change substantially from the initial master docket to the date a hearing was actually held. Because the monthly master docket was so cumbersome and time-consuming to create, any changes occurring after it had been created were supposed to be penciled onto a paper copy posted on a bulletin board. If all the changes weren’t recorded, then that’s when we didn’t know why someone was here. Big problem.”
In addition, Childers said, data extraction from the databases was cumbersome and time-consuming, with reports often taking days or even weeks to be generated. And without any kind of automated document assembly, routine documents were created one at a time.
In 2004, a formal Request for Proposal for a case management system was issued and short-listed vendors were asked to demonstrate their applications onsite. “The Legal Files demo won hands-down,” Childers said. “It knocked our socks off.”
“It really manages nearly all we do,” Childers said. “Of course, managing our dockets has been the biggest improvement. I can’t remember the last time we had a person show up and we had no idea why. The clerks are in the system all day, every day, retrieving information to respond to telephone inquiries, checking case statuses, generating notices and setting hearings. Judges enter their orders into our Legal Files system. From that we all can access the information we need, when we need it and follow through on exactly what needs to be done.”
Legal Files even helps us with document generation, Childers said. “We’ve probably created a couple hundred templates with Legal Files, and since we are not creating each document individually, that has sped up the process a lot,” she said. “We’ve also included the envelope in the template, so now a clerk can hit ‘Print’ and everything prints at one time.”
Additionally, the ability “for us to create our own reports has just been incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to custom reports,” Childers said. “We can manage what we need to manage.”
“My favorite thing about Legal Files is that I have the ability to customize it,” Childers said. “If I need to capture certain data for the state auditors, I can create a custom window to do that. And I get to use terminology that makes sense to me. Plus, if I want to lock-down what kind of data is being entered, I can do that using Legal Files pick-lists. In our old databases I bet there was a dozen ways people had abbreviated ‘motion for summary judgment.’ I know it doesn’t sound like much of a problem, until you realize you have to retrieve that information from the system for your reports. You then realize that you can’t simply search for ‘motion for summary judgment’ because that approach is not going to retrieve all the data you need. Legal Files eliminates that problem for us.”
Legal Files customization is accomplished from within the program itself. No programming ability is required or needed. Any non-technical person, with the proper security and training, can perform Legal Files customization. “It can be pretty much what you want it to be,” Childers explained, “so the most important thing is to decide from the beginning what you want it to be.”
Childers recommends that agencies considering Legal Files examine their existing processes before diving into installation and training. “Take a look at your process now and then decide how you want to utilize Legal Files within your existing process. Take some time to give it serious thought at an organizational level,” she said. “It’s not a time-machine and it’s not an anti-gravity machine, but it will do wonders, but it’s only going to be as good as the thought you put into it,” she said.
Because the OAC is always endeavoring to improve and Legal Files is extremely flexible, the office is looking at the possibility of using Legal Files as a communication hub for related organizations, linking Legal Files with the state’s workers’ compensation system and using Legal Files in conjunction with e-filing. “We’re in the baby-steps stage with e-filing,” Childers said, “but we’d like to develop a front-end web site so citizens could complete and attach the necessary forms, hit ‘Submit’ and then the case would automatically open in Legal Files.”
An Excellent Application
“Bottom line,” Childers said, “I like the product. I like the support I receive. I like the fact that when you receive new releases, they work. There’s no recreating the wheel every time. It’s an excellent application.”