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$1.6 million in grants goes to Kansans’ access to justice

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Published: Jul. 10, 2020 at 11:06 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Kansas judicial branch awarded $1.6 million in grants goes to help ensure Kansans’ access to justice.

The Kansas judicial branch says it received $1.6 million from the Kansas Federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program to help pay for technology improvements providing broader digital access to justice and allow courts to conduct more operations remotely.

Kansas Courts says the grant will help pay for:

  • remote technology equipment and software, including mobile hot spots, cell phones and service plans, laptop and tablet computers, computer accessories, webcams, printers, and software;
  • videoconferencing and virtual private network licenses;
  • a new web portal to allow people to seek protection orders without visiting a courthouse;
  • public access computer terminals to allow self-represented litigants access to virtual court proceedings; and
  • a centralized email system to allow the secure transmission of court-related documents, data, and messages.

“The grant comes at a critical time, and it will help us accelerate modernizing Kansas courts,” said Chief Justice Marla Luckert. “We’ve been working to digitize and centralize case processing the last several years, often with limited resources. Despite our progress, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly showed us how much more needs to be done.”

Kansas Courts says the judicial branch mandates electronic filing for attorneys and is utilizing a statewide centralized case management system that will be used by all state courts. However, until recently almost all court proceedings and services still required in-person meetings.

The Court says the COVID-19 pandemic forced the quick response of courts which shifted to virtual court proceedings and equipping staff to work remotely. Lack of technology was a big challenge says court staff. Judges and court staff also say they had to develop new remote processes that met statutory and constitutional requirements and then help attorneys, parties and the public to adapt to them.

The Court says resources vary widely among the 105 counties in Kansas. The state says it pays for judicial branch salaries, however, operating costs of district courts fall to individual counties and some county governments robustly support court technology infrastructure, but others do not have the resources to do so. Over half the state’s course serve rural areas, were reliable internet service is sometimes unavailable, according to the Court.

Some courts were able to adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19 more quickly due to having the necessary resources while others need additional support, which the grant funding partly provides.

The Court says district courts require technology and software to process cases remotely and for most or all staff to telework. The grant will help pay for computers, cell phones, mobile hot spots and other technology and software needs.

The Office of Judicial Administration says it negotiated a statewide enterprise license option with Zoom for court videoconferencing, which provides Zoom accounts for every judge and each courthouse while covering virtual private network licenses that allow teleworking personnel to access the judicial network.

The Court says the pandemic emphasized the branch’s dependence on paper-based, in-person processes for some court users and some case types like requests for an order of protection from abuse, stalking, sexual assault or human trafficking.

According to the Court, the grant will help pay to create a scalable, accessible and mobile-friendly web portal where a person seeking a protection order is guided through an online interview and the answers are used to populate forms a judge will review before granting an order.

The Court says people who need these orders will not have to visit the courthouse in person to file the required paperwork anymore, a process that places vulnerable individuals at risk.

The Court says the grant money will also allow courts to place computer terminals in courthouses or other public facilities and dedicate them to self-represented litigants that do not have the equipment or internet access to appear for remote proceedings.

Centralized email services for all judicial branch personnel will allow the secure transmission of court-related documents, data and communications between district courts and centralized judicial staff in the office of Judicial Administration says the Court.

The branch says the state grant money will enhance other funding sources the judicial branch is using to modernize court services. The Kansas Supreme Court and the Office of Judicial Administration say they recently devoted almost $750,000 in Court Improvement Program grant funds and fee funds to help district courts upgrade technology, but the funding is insufficient to meet all district court needs.

The judicial branch says it continues to pursue other grant funding opportunities to strengthen digital access to justice and remote operations.

Copyright 2020 WIBW. All rights reserved.

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