Office of Administrative Hearings Gets Marching Orders on Improved Transparency from D.C. Council
Fritz Mulhauser | July 8, 2021
The D.C. Council is recommending a dozen new actions by the Office of Administrative Hearings. Some are to address problems of electronic case filing and online public information the committee calls “critical.” According to the Council, information systems at the busy court are ”outdated and inaccessible.”
Along with a half-million-dollar budget bump for added OAH staff, the directions come in a draft committee budget report for the coming fiscal year 2022. The 195-page document approved July 1 covers 16 agencies overseen by the Committee on Government Operations & Facilities. Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) is the chair.
OAH is a $14 million agency. Over 30 administrative law judges decide complaints about mistakes in over 50 D.C. agencies, boards and commissions.
Chairman White told the newly-confirmed chief judge, M. Colleen Currie, in her first budget hearing before the committee in June that a chorus of public testimony showed “modernizing” OAH is “past due.”
The committee report calls on OAH to “prioritize” two computer software changes. The first, so that information and forms may be filed online from a laptop or phone, is known as “e-filing.” Coalition research showed it has been commonly adopted years ago in courts in D.C. and other states as the foundation of modern digital records management. The second will be to publish decisions online in a way that the public can search to find prior decisions in cases like theirs. Again, this is common in courts elsewhere.
The D.C. Open Government Coalition has advocated for these for years. Coalition efforts increased after the Office of Open Government in 2020 held the OAH was violating D.C. law by decades of failure to publish its results.
The committee report also recommended:
- work to address a 16,000 case backlog, including quarterly reports to the committee on measures taken to reduce it;
- a “staffing benchmark” study to assess if salaries are adequate and staffing appropriate for the caseload;
- continuing remote hearings after in-person work resumes including by video;
- dedicating more fulltime staff to the Resource Center and doing more to help people filing complaints without a lawyer;
- using the advisory committee and keeping it informed so they can oversee the use of remote hearings and other technology or accessibility issues.
Such recommendations in a Council report are not legally binding. But they do send a strong signal to agency managers of concerns that caught the committee’s attention this year. This is a marked reversal of the Council’s hands-off treatment of OAH the Coalition has noted in past years.
Following oversight hearings in February, budget hearings in June, and community contacts throughout, the Council’s ten committees have all marked up their budget reports. The members will have budget work sessions to begin to pull them all together. After further technical review the reports are signed and filed and the chairman presents a unified budget. A recent Council schedule shows votes on the FY22 budget are set for July 20, August 3 and 10.
Past Coalition blogs covered the Coalition’s testimony at oversight and budget hearings. The committee heard testimony this year also from Legal Aid, Bread for the City and Council for Court Excellence on themes of greater help for the thousands who use the court.
The Coalition will monitor OAH efforts to carry out this welcome set of recommendations. To share experiences using the Office in coming months, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.