It was undoubtedly a scary thing to do - go forth and ask the public what they thought of court services and whether they trusted their own justice system. And then ask the judiciary and the bar to chime in as well.
In essence, this is what happened in 1999 between a pair of ABA symposia, a bar-sponsored public opinion survey and a national gathering of judges, lawyers, educators and citizens collectively called the "National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Justice System." The latter spawned a National Action Plan (NAP), which acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of the public believed the U.S. justice system to be the best in the world, but also that the system had its flaws and that some of these were significant.
The NAP identified several areas where the courts and the legal profession needed substantial improvement, including access to justice in general, timeliness, equality and fairness, and independence and accountability. Courts at all levels, the judiciary and the bar responded in kind by launching several initiatives to address these problems.
Over the past decade, they have revised internal procedures to improve case flow, expanded the range of languages in which forms and other documents are made available, added or augmented awareness programs to improve the public face of the legal system and the public's understanding of legal processes, created statewide pattern forms and plain language projects to make these forms more understandable, and adopted a range of technologies to reduce or eliminate barriers to court information.
The National Conference was not the genesis of the public trust movement in our courts - there were earlier efforts of smaller scope that addressed many of these same issues - but it certainly helped to bring the topic to the forefront.
Where can you see public trust efforts at work in our courts today? The Board of Judicial Administration's Public Trust and Confidence Committee continues to pursue its mission "to assess the public's level of trust and confidence in the Washington judicial system and to develop strategies to increase that trust and confidence." It does so by maintaining a series of public awareness handouts describing various aspects of our state's trial courts, distributing its "Presiding Judges Outreach Toolkit" to help local courts promote their services and respond to inquiries from the media, and encouraging communities to include judges as speakers in their public forums.
The Washington State Bar Association's Access to Justice Board, whose formation pre-dated the 1999 conference, continues to pursue efforts to remove the economic, structural and technological barriers that prevent a significant number of Washington citizens from using our courts effectively. Projects such as King County Superior Court's Electronic Court Records and King County District Court's District Court OnLine Records programs, while not exclusively aimed at improving public trust, are certainly valuable efforts toward improving the public's access to King County courts.
...login to read the rest of this article.