The first time I ever heard of “fractals” was when the Manager of Programming arrived at a  meeting wearing a tee shirt with an incredible design (not the one at left; but equally colorful and cool).  I asked what it was, and he said, “A fractal”.  When I asked him what that meant, he said, “Chaos”.

In a nutshell, Chaos (also know as Complexity) Theory holds that systems, which appear structured and ordered at a distance, are at the atomic level infinitely random.  My first thought was: that sure sounds like a court.

To be clear, “Chaos” does NOT mean “disordered”.  What it means is that outcomes are not predictable.  We know (or believe) many documents will be filed tomorrow, but what will they be; and who will file them?  There is no way to know.

Richard Seel  (, in a piece titled “Complexity and Organisation {British spelling} Development”,, provides an excellent summary of the properties of Complex Systems:


What distinguishes a complex system from a merely complicated one is that some behaviours and patterns emerge in complex systems as a result of the patterns of relationship between the elements.   Emergence is perhaps the key property of complex systems…

Relationships are short-range

Typically, the relationships between elements in a complex system are short-range, that is information is normally received from near neighbours. The richness of the connections means that communications will pass across the system but will probably be modified on the way.

Relationships are non-linear
There are rarely simple cause and effect relationships between elements.

Relationships contain feedback loops

…The effects of an agent’s actions are fed back to the agent and this, in turn, affects the way the agent behaves in the future. This set of constantly adapting nonlinear relationships lies at the heart of what makes a complex system special.

Complex systems are open

Complex systems are open systems—that is, energy and information are constantly being imported and exported across system boundaries. …[E]ven though there is constant change there is also the appearance of stability.

The parts cannot contain the whole

There is a sense in which elements in a complex system cannot ‘know’ what is happening in the system as a whole. If they could, all the complexity would have to be present in that element. Yet since the complexity is created by the relationships between elements, that is simply impossible. A corollary of this is that no element in the system could hope to control the system. {JNB Note: The Presiding Judge and/or Court Administrator cannot control everything that is going on!}

Complex systems have a history

The history of a complex system is important and cannot be ignored… .

Complex systems are nested

Another key aspect of complex adaptive systems is that the components of the system {…are} themselves complex adaptive systems. ..

Boundaries are difficult to determine

It is usually difficult to determine the boundaries of a complex system. The decision is usually based on the observer’s needs and prejudices rather than any intrinsic property of the system itself….

This helps explain why courts and justice systems (gee, where are those boundaries?) are the way they are; why those of us involved with them often have such difficulty in explaining to others why the systems function and behave as they do; and why they are just so darn complicated.  They also help explain why initiatives such as ECM, e-Signature, and e-Filing, to name a few, have such powerful potential.

For example, paper-based, wet signature system workflows are, of necessity, predominantly linear, even though the relationships among those interacting with the documents is highly non-linear.   This situation imposes many levels of inefficiency into the system.  By transitioning to ECM and e-Signature with workflow, the workflow can be more closely aligned with these non-linear relationships and activities, thereby greatly reducing or eliminating the inefficiencies imposed by the limitations of the paper-based, wet signature system.  

Likewise, e-Filing removes the artificial limitations on a fundamentally “open” system – the Justice System, by increasing the efficiencies of importing and exporting documents across organizational (court, prosecutor, law enforcement) boundaries.

Moreover, they contain insight on how to better manage the complexity and organizational change inherent in planning for, designing, and implementing court technology initiatives of the complexity of paper on demand. 

Later we will explore some of these insights in further depth.  For now, contemplate the existential importance of proper professional design, development, and workflow to the success of the court’s transition to paper on demand given the court’s chaotic nature.   And enjoy the fractal.

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