It took a while, but the D.C. courts are finally online with a Web site of their own.
Until the debut of www.dccourts.gov last month, the Internet presence of D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals was a corner of the D.C. Bar's Web site. Also on that site were appellate decisions, judicial assignments and other information, much of it of particular interest only to lawyers.
Now, while keeping many features that the lawyers found useful, the new site is aiming at regular people. It explains how to use the Small Claims Court and how to take a case before the Court of Appeals. It allows people to download many of the forms that until recently had to be picked up at the courthouse. Soon, people summoned for jury duty will be able to go online to request a deferral.
When a storm strikes, people can check the site to find out if the courthouse is open or closed. If they don't know where the main courthouse and its annexes are, the site offers directions. And, with more and more Spanish speakers settling in the District, the site offers some of its most essential information in the city's second language.
"I was actually very pleasantly surprised," said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of D.C., who calls the site a promising start. "There are an awful lot of resources on the Web page, and they worked very hard to make it user-friendly."
Still, it's not as interactive or as informative as the sites of some other court systems, and it has a lot of room to improve, Smith and other court watchers say. "I hope that it's the start and not the finish," Smith said.
The daily case calendars for the civil and criminal divisions, for example, aren't available, though the court promises that they will be as the court's internal information systems are upgraded over the next few years.
Basic biographical information about judges or the senior executives who manage the courts' $200 million budget isn't available, either. The U.S. District Court posts biographies of its federal judges, but the District's chief judges are still considering whether their courts should do the same.
Madelynn Herman, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts who has studied court Web sites across the country, said the most sophisticated sites allow people to pay fines, calculate child support payments and even submit a request for an order of protection in domestic abuse situations.
"Web sites have evolved greatly for the courts," she said, from static sources of information into dynamic tools that actually allow people to use the information.
An example of an element that is static, Smith said, is the section of the D.C. Courts' site about how an unrepresented person can file an appeal.
A wealth of information is provided, Smith said, but it comes with a caveat in big, bold letters: "REMEMBER, THE COURT'S RULES CONTROL AND YOU SHOULD ALWAYS FOLLOW THEM, NO MATTER WHAT THIS GUIDE SAYS."
The rules of the Court of Appeals are indeed the final word, but they are complicated and more detailed than what the court wants to include in the guide. Yet, without any effort to explain the rules, the warning undercuts the guide's usefulness, Smith said. A solution might be a system that incorporates the rules and uses a question-by-question procedure to lead people to more precise answers for their particular cases.
What is available now on the Web site is "more general material," Smith said. "Somebody who doesn't already know what they're doing is going to have a harder time using it."
Leah Gurowitz, the courts' spokeswoman, said that the Web site is very much a work in progress and that the public should expect all sorts of new features over the next few years.
By the fall, she said, prospective jurors should be able to complete their preliminary questionnaires online, request an alternate date and check to see when they last served.
Beginning later this year, public access computer kiosks are expected to be rolled out around the courthouse and eventually to several spots around the city.
Asked why the courts are only now launching a site of their own, Gurowitz said in an e-mail that it was matter of balancing the demands on the court with the resources needed for setting up the Web site.
"Since the D.C. Courts had a very workable solution with the D.C. Bar hosting our site for the past four years, providing a substantial amount of information online, we addressed other priorities until we were able to put together a Web site that is first-rate," Gurowitz said.