Recently, Illinois’ 22nd Judicial Circuit Court in McHenry County installed an e-bench product for judges from Mentis Technology Solutions LLP called aiSMARTBENCH.
The product enables a judge to quickly access his or her daily calendar, related case information and the electronic case documents with a user interface that works in a fast-paced courtroom environment.
McHenry County is the first county in Illinois to employ this kind of technology. With the recent order by the Illinois Supreme Court mandating electronic filing in all circuit courts by Jan. 1, 2018, the pressure is on for the courts to move quickly.
In many state-court e-filing systems, judges’ needs can be an afterthought — which can ultimately undermine the e-filing project as a whole. If judges can’t rely on the electronic files and instead require paper files to continue being brought into the courtroom, the potential human-resource and financial savings won’t be fully realized.
McHenry County made it a priority to consider the judges’ needs proactively and sent out a request for proposals to several vendors. The decision was made to go with Mentis and, after a brief test period, went live with the system in December.
I spoke with the McHenry County Associate Judge Mark R. Gerhardt and Court Administrator James D. “Dan” Wallis to discuss the court’s experience with the new technology and what the future holds for the McHenry County court.
David S. Glynn: How did you get involved in this project?
Mark R. Gerhardt: Once we started exploring this as a pilot project, Dan Wallis identified the need for a few judges. I volunteered because I was one of the least technology-sound of all of them. If I was going to learn it to the full extent of its abilities, I would have to immerse myself in it. If I could learn it, anyone could learn it.
Glynn: How did your fellow judicial colleagues embrace it?
Gerhardt: We started [the pilot project] with a group of four judges. As a result, we had an inside track by the ability to observe another court that was using it. The judges in the pilot had a little more time with training and provided more input on shaping the product for the judges in our county. As a result, we were looking forward to using it.
Dan Wallis: Judge [Gerhardt] had a lot of questions, and we handled them as they came up. Because we worked closely with the company and addressed the judges’ specific needs, we were able to put all of the judges on the new bench product in February 2016. Because of its ease of use and customization to our court, we were able to take a four-year project and reduce it to one year and four months.
Glynn: Did you find the system flexible enough to apply it to your workflow?
Gerhardt: They [Mentis] actually designed it around our needs. We sent around an RFP that explained how we do business. We submitted a wish list to them about what we wanted versus what they had, and they were able to tailor the system to our needs.
Glynn: Why did you decide to go with your chosen solution?
Wallis: It’s a huge change for a judge to move away from paper files to electronic images. We wanted something user-friendly, highly configurable to the individual judge, and a product with a proven track record. We put together an RFP that spelled out our requirements. Three vendors responded. Only one vendor responded that had an actual system in use, and that was Mentis Technologies’ aiSmartBench.
Gerhardt: The reason that we went with Mentis was because of the way it met our needs. We did not want something that would cause us to have to relearn what we’d already been doing for the last several years. We knew that our court was moving rapidly towards e-filing and electronic documents. We wanted a system that would mesh with that concept and this product meets that need.
Glynn: What is the best and worst part about going digital on the bench?
Gerhardt: The best part is that I have the ability to search through each case file at my fingertips. Now I have it all on screen in front of me in my courtroom on the bench. I don’t have to leaf through papers to find things. If I need to see a particular document with two taps of my finger I have it available to me.
The worst part is that I liked having the physical paper. I always knew that with paper there wasn’t anything more than what I had in my hand. Computers intimidated me a bit, so I was concerned there may be something else I wasn’t able to find. I got over that when I realized that everything was available in the aiSmartBench. The worst part was giving up the comfort I had about having the physical papers on-hand.
Glynn: Are you distracted by the screen on the bench, or are you focusing more on the people in front of you?
Gerhardt: I find that I look at the screen more than I used to. I have to be mindful, especially to the litigants. It took a while to train my eye on the system — once my eye was trained, it became second nature. The nice thing about this technology is that it is individually configurable to each user. I can make items larger or smaller. If I don’t like the way it is [on screen], I can change it.
Glynn: Have you seen an increase in productivity or loss?
Gerhardt: I haven’t lost any productivity. I noticed a time or two when I had to go back to my paper court call that the old way slows me down. You don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. [Using the bench product] flows rather smoothly. I have a lot more knowledge at my fingertips than I had before. I’m in criminal court, but I believe this product will come into even greater use for judges in the civil courts.
Glynn: Have you experienced resistance from your judge colleagues to adopt the new bench technology?
Gerhardt: The more we told the judges about it, the more that they had seen it in action, the more willing they were to use it. I haven’t seen it as an obstacle.
Glynn: How does the judge’s smart bench interface with the court’s current e-filing project?
Wallis: Currently, e-filing is accepted in all divisions of the court. Forty-thousand documents were e-filed in 2015. All of the documents are either e-filed or scanned and are available to the judges on screen on the bench.
Glynn: And what would you like to see in a future version of the system?
Gerhardt: Further integration of the technology with other users would increase the efficiency. For example, instead of an attorney handwriting an order, there could be a terminal in the courtroom so an attorney could type an order and submit it.
Wallis: The next major step is the electronic creation of documents, electronic signatures and the “return trip” back to the court’s case-management system. The plan is to enable electronic drafting of a court order and automatically move it to the judge’s queue where the judge can then edit the order, enter it, sign it and lock the order electronically. We could then send that court order to the clerk’s imaging and case-management systems to make it available and electronically serve it to concerned parties.