Essential Components

What This Core Competency Is and Why It Is Important

Judges do not only consider evidence provided by the parties, rule on motions, and decide cases.  Increasingly, information used to make a judicial decision is provided to the court by programs and services annexed to the court and the case rather than by parties to the litigation.  Effective courts must be able to accept and use this information and to manage other programs and services ranging from the basic, such as court facilities, clerks and reporters, and court security, to the more specialized, such as child custody evaluations, legal research staff, and indigent defense.  These services, programs, and infrastructure constitute the court’s Essential Components.

Essential Components greatly impact court performance and the quality of justice.  Court leaders must, therefore, understand the need, nature, level of service, and how Essential Components are delivered.  Competent court leaders understand and keep pace with the scope and the essence of all such activities, programs, and services and ensure their proper management even if these components are not under the direct authority of the court.

Without effective Essential Components, court performance is compromised and litigants neither feel nor are well served.  When aligned with the court’s role and vision, and well managed, these activities, programs, and services contribute as much to prompt and affordable justice, equal access to justice, judicial independence and accountability, and public trust and confidence as caseflow management, the budget process, human resources, and information technology.

Essential Components are of several types and serve several functions.  They are grouped here according to how and when they occur and how they contribute to the court and the judicial process in: 1) case preparation, 2) adjudication, 3) enforcement, and 4) court infrastructure.

Case Preparation:  Better prepared cases and litigants mean cases can be presented more quickly and succinctly, reducing use of judicial resources and the cost of litigation and improving the pace of litigation.  Better prepared cases can improve the quality of justice and result in a stronger perception that justice is being done.  These Essential Components include the gathering and preparation of information to file a case, social interventions on behalf of parties prior to and in support of litigation, representation of some parties to litigation, and assisting parties who cannot afford a lawyer or who choose to file cases without a lawyer representing them.

Essential Components also include programs that identify and gather evidence and information after the case has been filed.  These activities both supplement and replace information gathering by the parties and its presentation to the court.  This reflects a paradigm shift away from a pure adversarial process to a process that encourages, if not requires, information gathering by a third party neutral working for and being supervised by the court rather than the parties.  A faster and less expensive fact gathering process contributes to public trust and confidence as well as more equal justice, especially to the extent it counteracts real and perceived resource and power imbalances between parties.

A related aspect of Essential Components is education of litigants, particularly those who may come to court without lawyers, about how to proceed, what will be expected of them, and what they can reasonably expect from the judicial process.

While such services challenge traditional thinking and the court’s managerial skills, neutral fact gathering can contribute to faster, cheaper and more equal justice.  These services and programs aim to: 1) reduce litigation costs and time, 2) enhance the traditional processes, and 3) improve the quality of life of individuals and communities.

Adjudication:  The judiciary resolves disputes.  This can occur a number of ways.  In most cases, the parties and their lawyers resolve the dispute.  Increasingly, however, others are engaged by the parties and/or are appointed by the court after cases are filed to help resolve disputes without formal judicial processes.  Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) such as mediation and arbitration, or use of masters or hearing officers supplements, enhances and even replaces traditional adjudicatory processes for civil cases.  New approaches to criminal and other litigation include problem solving courts such as drug courts, community courts, mental health courts, and teen courts.  These programs may or may not be part of the court and may be arranged by the parties and their lawyers with or without court involvement.

If none of these approaches are used, or they are not successful in resolving the dispute, parties resolve their dispute through the traditional adversary process, up to and including trial.  The traditional process also includes functions and activities that support and facilitate completion of hearings and trials.  In many cases, the parties are entitled to a jury trial, so there must be a program that provides qualified trial jurors to courts.  Parties or witnesses may not understand English sufficiently to allow them to understand, much less to participate meaningfully in the judicial process, so interpreters must be provided.

The traditional process includes reporters and clerk staff who facilitate the process and “make the record” of the court proceedings -- what the court heard and decided.  This includes the documents and exhibits that form the court’s file and which contain the court’s decision, and the verbatim record, electronic or paper, of what was said in court.  The record not only provides the record of what happened, it is the basis for appeals and allows the public, often through the media, to exercise their right to open public proceedings, and to hold courts and judges accountable.

Enforcement:  When, as it is often true, court orders and judgments are not self-executing, courts and their surrogates must take action to ensure compliance.  Probation, fine collection, and child support enforcement are the obvious examples of these types of Essential Components.  These mechanisms recognize that often one or more parties do not understand or have no incentive to implement the court’s decision.  Absent court intervention, some parties decide not to comply with court ordered remedies, whether equitable or monetary.  This undermines the rule of law and erodes public trust and confidence in the judiciary.

Court Infrastructure.  Essential Components also encompass the court’s facilities, equipment, communications, court security, and the movement of prisoners to and from and in the courthouse.  The existence, location, arrangement, efficiency, and usability of court facilities significantly impact the level and quality of court services as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of court and clerk of court staff.  These concerns must be addressed when designing or remodeling court facilities.  Another important aspect of facilities is physical access, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related state and local laws and regulations.

Program Management and Evaluation:  Many Essential Components operate as a distinct unit or organization.  In order to complement and enhance the judicial process, it is important that all of these programs are aligned with and supportive of the role and mission of the judiciary and its many functions and workflows. They must be well managed regardless of who has formal authority.  Continuous oversight and evaluation ensure that needed services are present, effective, and coordinated with judiciary and justice system operations and workflows.

View the Summary of Essential Components Curriculum Guidelines or click on each of the five Curriculum Guidelines to see the associated Knowledge, Skills and Abilities:

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