Now playing: your District Court in action

State produces video to explain system

March 08, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The scenario was fairly typical: A young woman, her car missing, approaches a District Court commissioner to file criminal charges.

As a video crew recorded every movement on a recent morning, the actors, both court employees, followed the process from the application to the information to the swearing to the truth.

Similar scenes would play out in various offices in Prince George's County's Upper Marlboro court building throughout the day as videographers moved from commissioner to cashier to clerk to courtroom, filming scenes that will be condensed into a five-minute explanatory video.

The video, which will run in a continuous loop in District Court lobbies across the state, is one piece of a larger effort -- from rewriting explanatory brochures to posting forms on the Internet -- that court officials hope will make the state's front-line court system, which handles 2 million new cases each year, more user-friendly.

"That's a lot of people, and we have a lot of facilities throughout the state," said Patricia H. Platt, the chief clerk for the Maryland District Court system. "We wanted to take a few steps back and do a review to see how we were doing in the public service area."

While the Circuit Court system handles the more serious and complex prosecutions and lawsuits, the state's 35 District Court buildings are often where residents have their first contact with the state courts.

People who believe they've been wronged file criminal charges in commissioners' offices housed within the system or legal papers with the District Court clerks to recoup small debts.

Here, residents often bypass lawyers -- and their fees -- opting instead to represent themselves. Without someone to explain the process, residents might make mistakes that can doom a case, officials said.

"People's faith in the court system understandably can be eroded when there is a case they should have won ... [that is] lost because of procedural problems," said Howard District Judge Neil Edward Axel.

To find ways to better explain the system, Platt said, employees conducted informal polls, asking friends and spouses whether the system's brochures, which contain explanations of everything from criminal complaints to peace orders, made sense.

They revamped the brochure explaining small claims cases, made changes to paperwork and made plans to post forms on the court's Web site that can be easily downloaded.

And they scripted the video, which will likely have its inaugural run in May in Anne Arundel County's District Court.

The efforts were coordinated through assistant chief clerk of administrative services Diane Pawlowicz, who was hired into a newly created position this month and assigned court access and "external customer issues."

Platt and Pawlowicz said they expect folks who use the District Court system will see a series of changes -- some subtle, some more noticeable.

The most noticeable, of course, will be the video, a walk through the court building using narration and segments taped in various courthouses -- with court employees playing the part of the public.

As he watched the video crew work a few weeks ago, Prince George's District Court Commissioner Ralph A. Price, one of the actors in the earlier scene, said he is often faced with people who "don't have a clue what to do, but they want something done."

"This is great. This is good information here," he said of the video. "Now people can actually see what's going on."

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