With grant support from SJI, the Fulton County Magistrate Court (FCMC), located in Atlanta, Georgia, received funding in 2017 through the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) Civil Justice Initiative for a demonstration pilot project to implement and test reforms on high-volume civil dockets. The FCMC caseload consists primarily of small claims (up to $15,000), dispossessory (landlord/tenant evictions), and garnishment cases.
The reforms were originally promulgated as recommendations endorsed by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators to secure the fair, speedy and inexpensive resolution of civil cases in state courts. Specific improvements implemented by the FCMC as part of the pilot project included the development and promulgation of informational resources, including brochures and web-based materials, for FCMC litigants; adjustments to court calendars to relieve case backlogs in dispossessory cases; and the development of checklists and training for judges and court staff to ensure consistent and accurate case processing. The reforms were implemented over an 18-month period beginning in March 2017 through October 2018.
At the end of the pilot project, the NCSC conducted a process evaluation to assess the immediate impact of the reforms and to glean lessons about effective implementation. The evaluation found that the reforms led to significantly reduced backlogs in dispossessory cases and reduced the time from filing to disposition for both small claims and garnishments; it did not find a significant reduction in time to disposition for dispossessory cases, likely because the timeframe was already so short that meaningful reductions would be very difficult to achieve. The evaluation also reported positive assessments of the informational resources developed for FCMC litigants, who found them very useful.
Conclusions about the pilot project highlighted challenges related to implementing reforms on high-volume dockets, especially the importance of stakeholder engagement and communication about how stakeholder input is integrated in program design; the need to allocate time, staff, and attention as key resources to ensure the success of pilot projects; and the value of soliciting litigant feedback both in the design and the assessment of pilot projects. The report closed with recommendations for ongoing reform efforts.