Feb 08 2022

Courthouses Boost Audiovisual Capabilities for Virtual Hearings

Conducting judicial business remotely requires video and sound upgrades.

If there was a sliver of good news in the earliest days of the pandemic, one place it could be found was at Sonoma County Superior Court in California.

There, at least, court employees were already using Zoom — they just had to expand it to meet the new demand.

“The problem was, we’d never used it at scale,” says Hema Krishnamurthy, the court’s IT director. Zoom had been the court’s go-to videoconferencing solution for meetings with vendors or other courts and for consultations with the Judicial Council of California, for example. Now, however, the court was forced to close its doors. To reopen, it would need the right technology, and it would need the equipment to support it.

Courts around the country drew similar conclusions. In Indiana, Elkhart County is using Cisco Webex to livestream its court hearings to the state’s public access websites. The probate and family courts in Essex County in Massachusetts provide a Zoom-based virtual registry service. Court systems have gone from adapting to the pandemic to seeing these technologies as a way of conducing routine hearings.

“It started as just trying to keep the courts functional,” says Brian Jackson, a senior physical scientist at Rand who’s researched the use of technology in criminal justice. Before 2020, Jackson notes, court systems had considered how tools such as videoconferencing might improve efficiencies or reduce the cost of justice involvement, but there were always concerns around fairness and outcomes. “Well, the calculus changed when COVID-19 hit. Things like virtual jury screenings suddenly made sense as just keeping things running became the near-term priority.”

These courts today are still focused on ensuring their practices are fair and effective, but they also sense a real opportunity. “They had these five-year plans for IT modernization that they pretty much completed in five weeks. So, now they’re looking at what’s next, and continued virtual access is definitely part of that,” Jackson says.

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Sonoma County Works to Improve Court Audio Tools

In Sonoma County, the picture was complicated by the fact that the Superior Court system includes 25 courtrooms spread across three different sites. At first, Krishnamurthy says, cases were handled remotely, “using whatever we happened to have,” but it quickly became clear that wouldn’t be enough.

“We needed laptops, large-screen monitors, microphones, webcams — anything we could get our hands on to make these rooms functional,” she says. Each space required technology that would allow in-person attendees to communicate while socially distanced. The tools would also have to work for people offsite, whether it was a defendant connecting from the county jail or an attorney remoting into the hearing from home.

The court purchased everything on its list and had it ready to go by June 1, the date it decided it would return to business. But then, it hit another snag: While the video solution was working just fine, the courthouse audio was an entirely different story, Krishnamurthy says.

“We were getting complaints about echoing and that people on Zoom couldn’t hear the judges when they spoke,” she says. “We had microphones everywhere, but voice projection was a real issue. The sound quality was bad.”

89%

The percentage of judges and other court staff and officials in state, county and municipal courts participating in virtual hearings in 2021

Source: “Virtual Court Hearings Are Here to Stay Post-Pandemic, Survey Finds,” Aug. 18, 2021

Krishnamurthy used grant funds to purchase a set of new equipment from Stem Audio. “Fortunately, it was a big success,” she says.

The package from Stem included tabletop speakerphones, each equipped with nine beamforming microphones. It also included a tool called Stem Hub, which centralizes the audio from the speakerphones. “The sound quality is great,” Krishnamurthy says.

Videoconferencing at Sonoma County Superior Court has become routine over the past year and a half, Krishnamurthy says, and she doubts that will change when the pandemic is over.

“Now, as long as you have the right technologies, you can attend your hearing from anywhere,” she says. In many cases, virtual proceedings won’t be appropriate, “but we’ve learned that we can conduct business in a different way when we need to.”

RELATED: How have civil court systems embraced remote technology during the pandemic? 

Virtual Court Tools Transform Participation in Maricopa County. 

Another local court IT leader who believes virtual access is here to stay is Charisse Richards, CIO of Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona.

Prior to the pandemic, the Phoenix-area system was a “desktop-type organization,” Richards says. That culture started to change when social distancing was required and her team distributed more than 800 laptops; it may have been relegated to history altogether when the system adopted a solution it calls Court Connect.

Built by the court’s audiovisual vendor and integrated with its case management system, the customized tool runs on the Microsoft Teams platform to allow any participant to join a virtual hearing using any web device, smartphone or even a landline.

“We schedule a hearing, the parties are invited, and then you can participate either in person or remotely,” Richards says. Courtrooms include Apple iPad devices that people can use onsite, and a proprietary recording technology keeps a record of the meeting by saving all sound and video in the cloud.

For the public, the new solution “has been transformational,” and not only because it’s a safer way to get to court in a world where COVID-19 is an ongoing threat.

“Think about that person who, once upon a time, would have missed a day’s work to attend a hearing that would only go for 15 or 20 minutes,” Richards says. With Court Connect, “you can do it with video or you can do it with just audio, so you get the same level of access to justice as everyone else.”

Richards adds that, as far as she can tell, there will always be courtroom ­scenarios where allowing participants to meet virtually makes a lot of sense. “We’ve done it and we’ve shown that it works. I don’t think we’ll ever put that genie back in the bottle.”

EXPLORE: Connected court system tools have streamlined proceedings; find out how.

Illustration by Stuart Bradford

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