Dallas County Commissioners Fail the Probate Courts

As we discussed last time, most Probate Courts around the state have adopted somewhat of a “customer service” approach to administering the work that takes place in the Probate Courts. This approach is a logical result of the fact that the majority of the work that happens in these courts is brought about from people having to come to court following the death or incapacity of a friend or family member.

Because of the level of administrative work that happens in Probate Courts, most of these courts have several staff members who help facilitate the work that takes place in those Courts. For instance, each Probate Court in Houston has a Judge, an Associate Judge, and 10-12 other staff members, including at least one staff attorney. In Ft. Worth, the Probate Courts have a Judge, and 10-12 additional staff members, including at least one staff attorney. In Austin, the Probate Court has a Judge, an Associate Judge, and several other staff members, including multiple staff attorneys. In all 3 of these counties, each Probate Court has a Court Investigator assigned to the Court to conduct thorough investigations in guardianship cases, and each of the Courts has a Guardianship Coordinator to monitor the guardianship cases pending in the Court.

By contrast, the Dallas County Probate Courts have very small staffs who are ill-equipped to efficiently handle the work entrusted to them. For instance, each of these courts has a Judge and only 4-5 additional staff people. They do not have any staff attorneys, associate judges, an adequate number of staff, a Court Investigator assigned to the Court, or a Guardianship Coordinator. As a result, the Dallas Probate Courts are almost incapable of providing the residents of Dallas County with the same level of service that the residents of most other counties enjoy.

One of the most disturbing consequences of the inadequate staffing of the Dallas County Probate Courts is the lack of Court Investigators and Guardianship Coordinators in each Court. At the outset of a guardianship case, each Probate Court around Texas sends their Court Investigator out to conduct an investigation related to the Guardianship case. Once the Investigator submits his report, the Court will then allow the case to proceed. In most counties, the Court Investigator’s report is generally filed with the court within a week or two following the initiation of the guardianship case, thereby allowing the case to proceed in a timely fashion.

In Dallas County, however, there is not a Court Investigator assigned to any of the Courts. Rather, the Courts draw from an investigator “pool.” Although the local Dallas County rules say that the investigators should strive to have their Reports submitted within 30 days, the reports are routinely not filed for 3 to 4 months after the initiation of the Guardianship. Inasmuch as the case cannot proceed without the filing of the Court Investigator’s Report, these Courts are routinely allowing incapacitated people to wait for months before they can receive the care that they require.

To compound the problems of inadequate staffing, the Dallas County Probate Courts also lack the basic technology to function in today’s society. Unbelievably, none of the Dallas County Probate Courts has a copy machine, a modern laser printer, a fax machine, or even the ability to make a long-distance phone call. These Courts are still using antiquated dot-matrix printers to print much of their correspondence. To make a photocopy of a document, they are required to go to the main county clerk’s office because none of the Courts has a copy machine. When trying to call an attorney on a case who has a long-distance phone number, the Court staff mails a letter to the attorney asking that they call the Court.

By contrast, the other Probate Courts around the state have modern technology, and in some cases, those courts have the most up-to-date technology. For instance, in one county, every member of the Court staff has a 4-in-1 copier/fax/printer/scanner machine on their desks, making it possible for each staff member to make high-quality laser copies, send/receive faxes directly at their desks, etc. Most other Probate Courts across the state have the ability to make long-distance phone calls, have photocopy machines in the Court staff offices, have fax machines, etc.

When questioned why the Dallas County Probate Courts are so under-staffed and under-equipped, the response given routinely is, “The (Dallas County) Commissioners won’t provide enough money to hire the appropriate levels of staff and won’t provide the necessary technology.”

If the goal of most Probate Courts across the state is to provide a friendly, customer-service atmosphere to serve the general public in the difficult times following the death or incapacity of a friend or family member, then the question that most of you are asking yourselves is, “How can the Dallas Probate Courts provide the customer service that other Courts around Texas provide if the Dallas County Commissioners refuse to give them the money necessary to adequately staff the Courts and to provide even the most basic modern technology?”

The answer is, “They can’t!”

Implicit in the ability of a Court, or any other business, to be able to adequately meet its “customers’” needs in 2008 is the ability of the Court or business to maintain adequate staff levels and to utilize technology to its advantage. The lack of appropriate staff and technology paralyzes the Dallas Probate Courts and prevents them from being able to timely address the needs of the public that they serve.

Can anyone imagine someone in one major city sending a letter by snail-mail to someone in another major city that says, “Please call me,” simply because they don’t have the ability to make a long distance phone call? Such a scenario seems almost barbaric!

The residents of Dallas County should demand that the Dallas County Commissioners take steps to afford the Dallas County Probate Courts the appropriate funding to be able to “upgrade” their technological capabilities to the most basic 2008 technology and to hire adequate staff levels to provide the Courts the ability to better serve Dallas County.