The legal system isn’t known for its love of change. But in 2020, courts across the country found themselves embracing technology and virtual proceedings as COVID-19 restricted in-person meetings and hearings.
Now, three years after COVID-19 came onto the scene, state courts nationwide are using technology to improve appearance rates, access to justice and more.
The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the national research center at the University of Denver, hosted a panel of state court judges as part of its Redesigning Legal Series to discuss how courts across the country are embracing technology.
The Oct. 6 virtual panel featured Judge Jeanne Robinson from Utah’s Salt Lake City Justice Court and Judge Scott Schlegel from Louisiana’s 24th Judicial District and was moderated by National Center for State Courts Vice President of Court Consulting Services David Slayton.
Robinson helped found Salt Lake City’s Kayak Court in May 2021 to reach out to people experiencing homelessness living along the Jordan River and offer a chance to resolve any outstanding legal matters they might have. The Kayak Court aims to reduce barriers in the justice system that can impact eligibility for government programs, employment and housing.
Schlegel has been an active voice in conversations around how courts can use technology to improve access to justice. Since April 2020, Schlegel has been active on Twitter sharing how he’s used technology to run his court and how other judges can too.
The pandemic wasn’t the first time the legal system used technology to improve access to justice, but the panel agreed that COVID-19 forced many in the legal industry — judges, court staff and attorneys alike — to embrace the role technology can play.
Courts nationally have slowly reopened their doors but the judges explained that post-pandemic their districts have benefitted from creating more flexible court options with technology. Incorporating tech hasn’t come without challenges though, the panel noted.
Removing Barriers, Increasing Trust
The judges explained that when COVID-19 first closed many courthouse doors, their districts scrambled to create remote proceeding options to prevent case backlog. They added that their courts still allow some remote appearance options and with more flexible options, their districts have had promising results.
Appearance rates of both litigants and potential jurors have increased, both judges said, and anecdotally, they’ve heard positive feedback from a range of stakeholders.
Robinson believes that creating remote appearance options has removed many of the barriers people face to getting to the courthouse like taking time off of work, arranging child care and finding transportation. Robinson added that her district has been aware of these barriers for some time, but the pandemic forced courts to rethink many of its proceedings.
“But as we structured the court system, it’s kind of been, ‘Well, that’s the way we’ve always done things.’ And of course, the pandemic has forced us to look at [how] we can’t do things the way we’ve always done them,” said Robinson. “So it’s with its challenges, it’s brought opportunities to look at different ways that we can provide access to justice.”
Schlegel believes remote appearance options have helped increase trust in the justice system. When people appear in-person and find themselves waiting — sometimes for hours— for a brief appearance in court Schlegel said they can get extremely frustrated.
“I always used to compare it to the DMV. How many people are excited to go to the DMV? You sit there and you wait, and you wait, and wait. And [when] we get to the counter, you are so mad that it doesn’t matter what is being told to you, you cannot hear anything,” said Schlegel. “You’ve got to show people that you care about them by caring about their time so that when they actually come in front of you, they can actually hear what you’re saying and absorb it.”
Remote appearance options have helped reduce some of that frustration, he said.
Schlegel has incorporated other tech innovations into his courtroom as well. He bought software that sends out appearance reminders by text and email and said he’s heard from people that the reminders have helped them show up to court on time. The reminders are like those used by many doctors’ offices, he said, and added there’s a lot that the justice system can learn from other industries.
Folding technology into the courts hasn’t been seamless, the panel noted. On top of technical difficulties that present new challenges in managing a courtroom, the technology needed to join virtual proceedings isn’t available to everyone.
So how are state judges handling these new challenges and making sure at-risk demographics don’t fall through the cracks?
Schlegel said he’s made a point to attorneys and the public that many of the rules of formality still apply in virtual court. He said he’s had people and lawyers show up for virtual proceedings in t-shirts, brushing their teeth, smoking and behaving in ways that wouldn’t cut it for in-person appearances. Prior to an appearance, Schlegel sends out instructions with expectations for his virtual courtroom as well as things people should do beforehand, like checking their internet bandwidth, to make sure an appearance runs smoothly.
In arranging his virtual courtroom, Schlegel has also tried to fold in some familiar aspects of in-person settings. Schlegel designed an online courtroom for pretrial conferences to help litigants and attorneys understand where to go. The room looks like a Clue board, with a jury box, judge’s chamber and conference rooms.
“The lawyers check in with my assistant down at the bottom and then they can actually pull themselves up to conference rooms and meet with each other just like they used to physically. And I’m actually at the bench holding court and nobody can hear what’s going on until you pull yourself to where you need to be,” explained Schlegel. He switches to more traditional virtual hearing options once motion hearings begin, but Schlegel explained that the format has helped alleviate some of the confusion associated with remote proceedings.
With Kayak Court, Robinson said, she’s become used to conducting court business with less formality. Instead of robes, Robinson wears a polo shirt. The bailiffs of Kayak Court, also in boats, can seem less daunting than in the courthouse, she added.
Robinson added that the lower level of formality can be helpful when working with at-risk populations that might harbor distrust of the judicial system. While she runs her virtual courtroom with more formal proceedings, she added that when someone is able to appear online in a more comfortable setting, virtual court can help alleviate any distrust they might carry when it comes to the courts.
Virtual proceedings have a lot of promise when it comes to increasing access to justice, but the judges were quick to note that there are new barriers that some groups and judicial districts face when it comes to accessing the technology and support needed to join.
People experiencing homelessness are one demographic that has trouble accessing tech needed to join remote proceedings, Robinson noted. Other groups that could fall through the cracks include people in remote areas with limited access to high-speed wifi, people with lower incomes who don’t have certain technology and people who might not know how to operate technology.
Access to technology isn’t just a barrier for the public and court users, the panel pointed out. Schlegel noted that not every judicial district has resources to have staff on-call IT but he added there are many, relatively cheap technology options that can help alleviate the workload for court staff around things like scheduling, helping people fill out court documents and more.
Robinson said she’s experienced technical difficulties before and without on-call IT she’s had to think on her feet to work through any glitches and ensure a hearing goes smoothly.
The Future of Court
Neither judge thinks in-person court will ever go away, but they both expressed hope that the justice system will keep incorporating technology to improve people’s experiences and access to justice.
The panel was also quick to point out that most court procedures have been in place for decades if not centuries. While virtual court is far from perfect, Robinson and Schlegel hope stakeholders will be patient as the U.S. justice system figures out best practices.
“I think it’s always important to remind everybody we were doing in-person court about 100 times as long as we’ve been doing remote court. So maybe give us a little chance, and we might work out some of these little glitches,” said Slayton.
Figuring out best-practices for remote courts will require collaboration across the country, said Schlegel. For him, Twitter has been the best way to share what’s worked for him and he encouraged judges across the country to be active in conversations around tech and the justice system.
“Just sharing that information is important,” said Schlegel. “So number one is just you know, retweet or share or send all the information to the folks around so that we can learn ‘Oh, you’re doing the same thing I’m doing in my jurisdiction, well, let’s get together and help.’”
Robinson added that at the start of the pandemic, her district had a standing meeting to allow judges to share or ask questions of other judges about how they’ve handled remote proceedings, what technology has worked well for them and how they’ve handled any challenges.
“Just having that weekly meeting gave everybody an opportunity to share their innovation,” said Robinson. “Maybe hav[ing] another court that was struggling [would] not have to reinvent the wheel and say, ‘That’s a great idea. I’m just going to adopt that.’”