Court administration, also referred to as judicial administration, encompasses the range of policies, procedures, and tasks essential to court operations. Its goal is to ensure the fair and efficient administration of justice. Judiciary leadership, judges, and court administrative personnel all have a role in the administration of the courts.
This piece offers an overview of the fundamentals of court administration and explores the varied institutional arrangements national judiciaries have adopted to manage their court systems.
What: Court Management
Human resource management of court administrative personnel is a significant part of court administration. In most countries, judicial personnel issues are the responsibility of a judicial council, a judicial services commission, the supreme court, or the ministry of justice. Some judicial systems empower individual courts to recruit and manage their own staff, as is the case in the United States and The Netherlands; court staff in these countries are not civil servants but work for the judicial branch. This affords individual courts flexibility to meet local court needs. However, in many countries, the ministry of justice or a central government agency has the authority to recruit, select, oversee, and deploy administrative personnel as civil servants, with little to no discretion afforded to court managers, as is the case in Bahrain.
Strategic planning is the process courts use to identify long-term priorities and proper methods to meet them. Courts may develop mission or vision statements to inform the planning process. A mission statement often includes assertions about the core values of the court such as independence, impartiality, fairness, and access to justice. A vision statement reflects the court’s aspirations for future performance. Courts also may have shorter-term operational plans to meet an immediate need or challenge or an annual work plan focusing on strategic priorities.
For example, in 2020 the Singapore Family Justice Courts held a virtual session open to the public during which the court’s presiding judge noted the centrality of stakeholders and set forth three goals for the year: furthering therapeutic justice with a multi-disciplinary approach, fortifying professional development, and facilitating settlement and enforcement. In Canada, an action committee was formed to provide short and long-term operational plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee is responsible for providing national guidance to restore and maintain court operations across Canada, foster communication and collaboration across Canada’s courts, and modernizing Canada’s approach to justice delivery by addressing the pandemic’s long-term impact on court operations.
International Criminal Court: Strategic Plan
The International Criminal Court issues a strategic plan every two to three years. It identifies its mission, vision, and values:
- Mission: The mission of the International Criminal Court is to investigate and try the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a court of last resort complementing national jurisdictions and with the aim of ending impunity and preventing such crimes.
- Vision: The Court envisions being a universal, responsive, flexible and resilient organization that strives for continuous improvement and to attract and retain the most competent staff.
- Values: The new set of Court-wide values will be identified through a meaningful exercise based on the principles of inclusivity, transparency and open-minded discussion involving all of the Court’s staff.
A growing number of judicial systems conduct regular assessment of court performance to assess the efficiency and quality of operations and identify challenges. An overview of court performance measures can be found here.
Financial management is an integral part of court administration, especially in countries where individual courts are responsible for preparing, executing, and auditing their budget. An overview of the court budget process can be found here.
Many judicial systems are making the transition from paper-based operations to the use of electronic case filing, records, and evidence; this is often done as part of a larger scale e-justice initiative, as was the case in Estonia, Lithuania, and Turkey. Technology is used to support the work of judges and court staff, case management systems, financial and human resource management, exchanging information with other government agencies, and during some types of court proceedings. Many courts regularly use videoconferencing, and court IT specialists must be well versed with cyber security requirements and protocols. Although court leadership may not have IT expertise, it nevertheless has a role overseeing the court’s technology needs and performance.
The infrastructure needs of a court are varied, including the construction and maintenance of court building, as well as the facilities and equipment they house. The elements of infrastructure management include:
Management of court infrastructure – ensuring that the courthouse is accessible, secure, well equipped and maintained, has sufficient space and courtrooms – is often constrained by limited resources. Whether court funding is sufficient or inadequate, facility management is essential for maintaining existing facilities and advocating for improvements. As is the case with financial management, responsibility for court infrastructure may be assigned to a court manager or it may be centrally organized and under the authority of the ministry of justice or a judicial council.
Courts are complex organizations with varied operational needs, including court user services, case filing, accessibility accommodations, sufficient courtroom equipment, record maintenance, security, as well as fines and fees collection.
Continuity of Operations Plans
A Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) is a plan for court to be prepared for disasters. Examples of court interruptions include natural disasters, fire, public disturbances, loss of electricity, and health emergencies like a pandemic.
Operations management should include a plan for the continuous operation of the court during an emergency situation. A COOP address needs such as protecting court records and equipment. It also identifies core staff and judges essential for a minimum operation of the court and sets forth a plan for communication among court personnel and judges as well as with emergency services (police, fire department and medical responders should be organized).
Court files constitute the core of the work done by judges and administrative staff. They include case and docket related documents, records related to finance and budget, human resources management, facility management, and administrative documents like court policies and procedures. These files and records must be accessible and secure. Court administration policy includes rules for publication, archiving, and destruction.
In many countries court records remain paper-based files. Management policies are necessary to ensure that they are stored in safe and secured areas, and that there is sufficient space for storage.
An increasing number of countries have introduced court quality policies to assess court performance -- how courts operate, not the quality of judges performance or their judgments. The courts in Rovaniemi, Finland established Working Groups for Quality. In 2003, these groups developed benchmarks to assess the judicial process, court judgments, treatment of parties and the public, timeliness, and judge/court staff competencies. They used self-evaluations, surveys, expert evaluations, and statistical analysis. The judiciary of Lithuania adapted the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) to assess court performance. CAF focuses on user feedback, strategic planning, staff performance, resource management, and process modalities.
The International Framework of Court Excellence (IFCE) is another court assessment tool. The Framework is built around seven areas of excellence: leadership, strategic management, workforce, infrastructure and processes, user engagement, access to justice, and public trust and confidence. More information about the Framework can be found here. The Dubai International Finance Centre Court adopted the IFCE in 2009. In 2012, the court implemented a self-assessment using the Framework, leading to the implementation of initiatives to improve judicial education, court services, and performance management. Indonesia’s Batulicin District Court conducted a self-assessment based on the Framework in 2014; it used the data gathered to develop policies for improving court planning and addressing court-user complaints.
Who: Court Governance
Judicial governance and leadership play a significant role in court administration. There are different models for structuring administrative oversight. In some countries both governance and management rest in a single entity; in other countries, the judiciary has leadership authority, but court administration is tasked to a separate entity.
- Ministry of Justice: In many civil law countries, as well as the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the central management of the courts, including tasks ranging from budget development to building maintenance.
- High Judicial Council: Judicial councils exist in many countries, though the scope of their responsibilities can vary. In Colombia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland, and Syria, a judicial council has both governance and court management authority.
- Supreme Court: In China, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and many US state court systems, the supreme court is the governing entity of the judicial system. However, the court may delegate management responsibility to an administrative agency under its jurisdiction. For example, Russia’s Judicial Department is an organ of the supreme court tasked with court management.
- Independent Administrative Entity: The governance structure of the United States federal courts is decentralized, but an independent judicial agency, the Administrative Office of the US Courts, is the national institution for court administration. Namibia’s Office of the Judiciary serves a similar role, undertaking management oversight of the court system.
- Hybrid: Many countries have a hybrid model, with a judicial council responsible for human resources but other aspects of court management such as financial and infrastructure management falling within the competence of the ministry of justice.
In Jordan, the responsibilities for court administration and court management are divided between the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Judicial Council. The Council is responsible for management tasks related to judges, including human resource management and strategic and operational planning; the Ministry oversees all other aspects of court management: court financing, infrastructure, administrative personnel, information and communication technology.
The Greek Ministry of Justice is responsible for all matters related to court administration and judicial human resource management. The Ministry also hires all court administrative personnel, using a governmental agency responsible for the recruitment of civil servants. However, the supreme court sets judiciary policy, including guidelines for judicial decision-making.
Historically, the Dutch Ministry of Justice exercised administrative oversight over the judiciary. Reforms introduced in 1998 and 2002 created a judicial council and strengthened the organizational independence of the judiciary. The judiciary assumed responsibility for all aspects of court administration. The judicial council prepares the budget and allocates funds to the individual courts; it also develops policies for human resources, infrastructure, technology, and quality management. However, individual courts have a high level of self-governance. They are managed by a board composed of a court president, two other judges and one court administrator. The board recruits administrative personnel and oversees court management. Court technology is provided and maintained by a governmental shared service center.
The court president (or “chief judge”) usually has primary responsibility for overseeing court operations. They represent their court and its interests during official exchanges with other judicial officials and governing bodies. Such gatherings include meetings with the bar and interactions with the public. In some countries, the president also is tasked with monitoring the work of judges and, if no system of random case assignment exists, allocating cases among the judges.
In many countries, collecting data on judicial and court performance falls under the umbrella of court administration. Therefore, the court president may be required to prepare or review reports about the quality and efficiency of individual judges’ performance. This is the case in Jordan, where these reports are then submitted to an office of judicial inspection. The court president may also be responsible for monitoring the court’s performance using tools and data collected by staff as well as making recommendations for training.
The court president usually has significant managerial oversight responsibilities, including insuring professional court operations, leading strategic planning initiatives, reviewing complaints from the bar and the public, keeping apprised of court staff issues, infrastructure needs, material resources, and court security.
The amount of time court presidents spend on managerial tasks varies from country to country. There are countries where a court president is a full-time managerial position and performs no judicial tasks, as is the case in China and The Netherlands. Or the court president may take on a reduced caseload so that there is sufficient time for administrative duties, as is the case in Moldova.
Many individual courthouses have a chief court administrator who has authority delegated from the court president and is responsible for day-to-day oversight of court operations. Sometimes this position is filled by a registrar. (However, the position of ‘registrar’ has different responsibilities depending on the country. The registrar’s duties may be limited to human resources, or a registrar may also have legal responsibilities.)
Chief court administrators in many countries have a degree in business management. Some countries, including the United States, have university graduate degrees in court administration. Other countries offer non-university professional certificate programs for court management, as is the case in Ukraine. In many countries, national judicial schools offer court management training or have a separate academy for court managers. For example, France has a national school for its registrars (court managers) and Romania has a national school for court clerks.
In some countries the interaction between the chief court manager and court president is close, with regular consultation and often daily communication. In other countries there is a strict separation of responsibilities between the two. The court manager is primarily the head of the registry and court staff, with very limited interaction with the court president.