Michigan courts taking case management into 'Next Gen'

By Chad Gromek
Legal News

The Michigan Supreme Court, the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO), and its Judicial Information Systems division (JIS) continue to implement technological renovations to Michigan courts that are expected to produce long-term dividends for the judiciary.

“Improvements in telecommunications, the Internet, and software products that digitized traditional paper-based processes demanded it was time for the judiciary to use these tools and re-assess their applicability to improve court services,” said Mark Dobek, director of the JIS.       

In 2001, the SCAO, through the Michigan Legislature, established the Judicial Technology Improvement Fund (JTIF). Back then, the JTIF appropriated $2.09 million to the Michigan Supreme Court to explore technological innovations such as electronic filing, video conferencing, and online payment of court fines and fees.

With financial support from JTIF and National Criminal History Improvement Program (NCHIP) grants, JIS implemented a statewide telecommunications network that allowed for the sharing of information among courts, state and local executive agencies, and the public, according to Dobek. The network also provided a channel for the creation of the Judicial Data Warehouse (JDW) in 2004.

“This was a significant progression because prior to the network and JDW, trial courts did not share the information that was displaced across 150 disparate file servers with 30 different case management software systems,” Dobek said. “Courts only a couple of miles away from each other could not share case related information.”

While the JDW allowed courts to connect with one another and to share basic information, the case managements systems and the detail information contained therein lacked centralization, Dobek indicated.

Michigan’s trial courts are locally funded. The varying budgets, caseloads, and cultures of the courts produce a differentiated and decentralized case management environment, he explained. Centralizing the case management systems for the courts was the next crucial task for JIS.

In 2005, JIS began discussing options that would provide a central system for Michigan court case management, and in so doing, organized its Next Generation project (Next Gen).

By November 2007, SCAO and the Next Gen team settled on a strategy for building its central case management system. In partnership with Unisys, a technical consulting firm, JIS began work on a Michigan-specific version of an established court case management framework that Unisys previously developed for Western Australian courts. Funding for this project would come from the JTIF, JIS user fees, and partnerships with trial courts.

 Practicality of the project’s strategy relied heavily on the participation of pilot courts in Berrien and Washtenaw counties. Both counties collaborated with Next Gen to help fund and design the functionality of a working court case management system, Dobek said. The pilot program provided the necessary feedback Next Gen needed to modify the system’s software, he indicated.

In 2009, a prototype Michigan Case System (MiCS) software was ready for use. The software regulated the core functions and civil case processing in circuit and district courts. Individuals from JIS, Berrien and Washtenaw counties, and others familiar with using the current court case management systems, began testing the software’s suitability. Understandably, difficulties arose during and after testing.

JIS testing revealed the Australian court system did not have an adequately advanced feature-set to support the needs of MiCS. Consequently, the SCAO, Unisys, and the partnering counties decided to build a new, Michigan-specific, system from the ground up. The decision resulted in a 2-year extension to the project plan.

“An extension of the project’s timeline was unappealing, but the delay was necessary in order to cement the system’s functionality,” Dobek said.

The continued construction of MiCS resulted in a successful implementation of the Core and Civil Modules in Berrien County on August 6, 2012. MiCS met the mark in addressing the business needs of Michigan courts based on the designed criteria. And by so doing, JIS officials predict a swift assembly of the project’s remaining modules by leveraging the civil and core functions software into the criminal, juvenile, and probate case management systems.

The final step of the project is installing MiCS within all state courts, according to Dobek. The installation will include assistance from JIS in terms of system user training and migrating data support.

“JIS is now supporting MiCS with a proven business model that emulates the support we provide to our 249 trial court locations using our legacy systems,” Dobek said. “That model includes a technical staff that has taken ownership of MiCS, understands Michigan court procedure, and provides improved support capabilities associated with using a modern toolset.”   

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