What do the London bus system and Utah courts have in common?
Both are service organizations.Why should the Utah court system strive to be unlike the London bus system?
The answer is found in a story that Wisconsin's Supreme Court Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson related to more than 300 jurists at a Justice in the 21st Century conference in Utah.
A few years ago, commuters on London's bus routes complained that totally empty buses passed their stops without picking up passengers. When the people complained, the bus system managers had a simple explanation: The buses couldn't stop to pick them up because if they did, the buses wouldn't keep their expected time schedules.
"In the justice system, we can't have a London-bus-system mentality. Litigants, the users of the system, aren't a bother. We are here to serve them. We can run efficiently without them, but then that wouldn't be what the justice system is supposed to be about," she said.
An internationally recognized lecturer, Abrahamson believes the greatest challenge facing the Utah justice system today and in the next century is replacing the "elevated bench" attitude, which creates fear, with a more humanistic, service-oriented approach by judges.
"The most significant view is that of the users of the system - the jurors, witnesses, victims, litigants.
"We have to be accountable. Court users say to us, `This is my court. You all work for me, the consumer . . .' Have public officials quit listening to the public?"
Utah has taken a lead nationally by involving the public in charting the future of its court system through using results of a series of opinion polls. Results show that 80 percent of Utahns feel they would be treated fairly in the justice system. Seventy-two percent think Utah courts do a good job. "You should be proud," Abrahamson said.
"But potential users also say they have doubts about the system." Delay, cost of litigation and "too much hassle" were listed as problems.
Judges and their staffs determine the quality of justice. But judges are too isolated. The should consult with people outside the justice system - teachers, philosophers, police, parents. To obtain the perspective of the court consumer, Abrahamson recommended that judges change seats in the courtroom - sit in the witness stand, the jury box, the litigant table. Visit other courtrooms.
A suggestion box should be placed outside Utah courtrooms for users to submit recommendations. Television cameras should be allowed in the courtroom to enable the public to watch how the justice system works. In Wisconsin, cameras have been allowed since 1978. Some cases have been televised "gavel by gavel" on educational channels. And a cable channel for court proceedings is in the works."We have to rely on the media to reach others."
Jurors should be allowed to take notes during court cases and ask questions, she suggested. "Courtrooms need not to be frightening."
Polls show that men feel they are discriminated against in custody cases and women feel judges are frequently demeaning in dealing with them. Any sign of discrimination by judges needs to be eradicated, she said.
Judges tend to take a "rear view mirror" approach to change, looking to the past for established legal precedent. But Utah is disturbing judges' "comfort zones" by involving the community in deciding what their justice system should be in the 21st century.
Looking to the future makes judges uncomfortable, but change is certain. And Utah judges will be better prepared to provide more efficient, fairer, user-friendly justice in the next decade because "court consumers" are involved in planning the journey, she said.
Attorneys rate judges
(300 Attorneys Questioned)
What do you see as the major weakness of the court system?
(12 other categories mentioned)
Incompetent judges 23%
Delays in the system* 18%
What do you see as the major strength of the state court system?
Good qualified, competent judges 13%
Quick settlement of disputes 43%
Dan Jones Poll