One judge’s embrace of technology helps the court save time and taxpayer money

Commissioner Patrick Connaghan using an iPad

By Geri L. Dreiling, Esq.

St. Louis Probate Commissioner Patrick Connaghan has long embraced technology as a means of saving time and taxpayer money. In March, Lawyer Tech Review attended a hearing that showcased the court’s push toward more extensive use of technology, including Connaghan’s discovery that he could move cases quickly and economically with the use of an iPad.

Connaghan’s duties include hearing mental health docket cases. Before 2008, hearings regarding involuntary civil commitment or treatment required patients to be transported to the courthouse in an ambulance – an expensive, complicated and sometimes traumatic process.

Four years ago, the St. Louis Circuit Court authorized the use of video to conduct hearings. In a pioneering partnership with several St. Louis–area hospitals, video rooms were created within these hospitals where a patient and his or her lawyer may participate in a hearing, listen to testimony and testify. The judge and the assistant circuit attorney handling the case for the hospital are located in the courtroom, which is also equipped with a video feed, allowing the patient to see and hear everything taking place in the courtroom. In the four years since the project’s launch, more than 2,000 video hearings on the mental health docket have been conducted.

Traveling Courtroom

iPad using an iPhone WiFi HotSpot

An iPad 2 connected to the Internet using a hotspot from an iPhone 4S

To accommodate those hospitals that don’t have video rooms, the St. Louis Probate Commissioner opted to change the way in which hearings are conducted: Now, the commissioner and lawyers travel to the hospital. Connaghan needs just two microphones and a recording device to make a record of the hearing and an iPad with which to review his pleadings and issue orders.

For these on-site hearings, Connaghan brings an iPad 2 – configured by the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator for additional security – giving him access to closed and sealed files; an iPhone 4 with a personal hotspot that allows him to connect the iPad to the Internet; and a BoxWave stylus.

Before leaving for a hearing, Connaghan downloads the pleadings for the docket into the PDF Reader Pro app for the iPad. (Since the hearing attended by LTR, Connaghan has begun using Quickoffice Pro.) (Affiliate links)

Taking notes on an iPad using a stylus

During the hearing Connaghan, wielding the stylus rather than a gavel, flips through the pleadings and reports and takes notes during the testimony.

Because each hearing is limited to a narrow question, such as whether the individual in question should remain in the psychiatric unit or undergo treatment, the range of orders that may be issued once the evidence has been heard is limited. Connaghan prepares orders reflecting the various rulings that might be rendered in the case and, after the hearing, selects the appropriate order and issues it. Using the personal hotspot produced by his iPhone, he sends the order to the court’s clerk, as well as the attorneys in the case.

“I like to issue orders as soon after the hearing as possible,” Connaghan explains. “The individual patients are anxious about their future, and the hospitals need to know what the next step is in the process. The quicker we can process the orders after a full hearing, the better it is for everyone involved.”

Paperless Push

The modernization hasn’t stopped there. In 2009, the probate court concluded that too many physical files, often containing just a few pieces of paper, were being created for cases that were often never heard because the patient either agreed to treatment or was released. However, under court rules these files had to be kept for at least five years. As is the case in many U.S. courthouses, the probate court’s space is limited, and physical files carry a cost in terms of storage and human resources.

Going Paperless with PDF and iPad

To stave off the problems associated with this steady accumulation of paper, the court adopted an e-filing system. Petitions for involuntary commitment are now submitted electronically; when a paper document is involved, a clerk uses a scanner to product a PDF document and file it in Missouri’s Case.net system. The court transmits documents by way of email rather than traditional mail, allowing them to be added to Case.net as well. Going paperless also means that court-appointed lawyers can be sent relevant court documents by way of email.

Connaghan reports, “With the reduction in paper, we have been able to maintain our postage budget at 2009 levels despite the fact that we have not reduced the number of cases we handle and considering that postage rates have risen.”

Of course, when the scanning project began, the iPad did not yet exist. But when the gadget emerged, he quickly realized that it could be integrated into the mental health docket to make it more efficient.

As the old saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. In Connaghan’s court, technology helps reduce that wait.