Judge in the Box

Court is now in session--QuickCourt, that is. All rise!
Not that anyone who uses any of the two dozen judicial vending machines unveiled by the Arizona Supreme Court last week will have much choice.

Standing at the ATM-like QuickCourt kiosks, the legally clueless can now electronically fill out paperwork relating to a variety of court-oriented problems. At the swipe of a credit card, the machine spits out the finished form.

Voila! Instant divorce, name change or restraining order?
Not quite.
"While that might have been the first-blush perception by the public, I think they're catching on," says Jeanie Lynch, coordinator of the Supreme Court's QuickCourt program. "After they've completed the forms, they've still got to take them to the proper jurisdiction."

The jury's still out on last week's 25-machine roll-out--during its inaugural stint in the lobby of Glendale Public Library, for instance, the machine mostly attracted the curious, like the teenage couple who howled as they filled out bogus divorce papers.

But response to earlier test programs in the Scottsdale, Mesa and Tucson court systems proved so favorable that administrators hope to have 150 machines operating statewide by midsummer. Funded in part by a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the interactive kiosks can now be found in court buildings, public libraries and community colleges. (For location information, call 1-888-414-FORM.)

"The [court] system can be frustrating for a lot of folks coming in," says Bob James, point man for the QuickCourt machine recently installed in the Superior Court's self-service center. Noting that some pro per (or do-it-yourself) cases may involve up to 50 pages of paperwork, James says, "If people don't have any experience with our court culture, most of them are relying on information from civics class--and we all know how much we remember from that."

Virtually idiot-proof, the touch-screen kiosks don't require potential litigants to have any more technical know-how than needed to operate, say, a gift-shop computer that produces custom-greeting cards.

Featuring easy-to-understand narration, catchy graphics and reassuring video clips (a couple of nonthreatening barristers "talk" users through the process), QuickCourt may be the public's most painless indoctrination into the judicial system since Judge Wapner laid down his gavel.

By indicating the appropriate responses on the screen, users can fill out legal documents, receive general legal information or learn where to go for further legal advice. Forms currently available include domestic relations (divorce and child support), probate, tenant/landlord disputes, small claims documents and alternative dispute resolution. Another prompt allows users to back up at any time to recheck their work. Offering instructions in both English and Spanish, the machines are geared to a fourth- to sixth-grade vocabulary. Charges for the service range from free (restraining orders) to $30, payable in cash, credit card or debit card.

User-friendly as QuickCourt is, don't expect to see the likes of Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky queuing for a computer-generated divorce.

"It's not for everyone," concedes Jeanie Lynch. "These computers are geared toward litigants who cannot afford attorney services. . . ."

And according to Lynch, that's why Arizona State Bar members are reportedly "quite supportive" of the potential competition. "They recognize that most of the people who'll be using QuickCourt are people who they never would have seen in the first place," she says.

The Arizona Bar Foundation's Ron Johnson agrees. "It's not always feasible for people to afford an attorney," says Johnson, who believes that, along with the Superior Court's self-serve center, QuickCourt "helps create a better bridge for access for justice to the public." "The beauty of these kiosks is that they can help out in simple matters, but when the [case] gets more complicated, the machine has the capability to recognize its deficiencies and suggests that [the user] find legal help."

Still, even the judicious QuickCourt doesn't have the answer to everything.
Or so Mesa law librarian Mary Grace Oakes learned when she was forced to arbitrate an ugly dispute that broke out among several individuals who wanted to use one of the test machines awhile back.

Recalling how several people had lined to use the kiosk, Oakes says, "When one of them left to use the rest room, the person behind them wouldn't let them back in line when they returned. That's when we had to step in. From then on, we decided that anyone who wanted to use the machine had better make reservations.

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Dewey Webb