Feb 20 2023

Virtual Courtrooms Enhance Participation in State and Local Judicial Proceedings

Around the country, judges see increased access to the legal system by remote litigants.

In 2021, the National Center for State Courts conducted a study of Texas courts and discovered that remote proceedings “increased access to justice, as litigants can more easily attend and participate in hearings.”

The 12-month study found many advantages to remote hearings, including that litigants could take less time off work, save transportation costs and avoid childcare expenses to attend proceedings. Some courts allowed litigants, including people representing themselves, to schedule their hearings. Remote hearings generally expanded access for all participants, according to the study, titled “The Use of Remote Hearings in Texas State Courts: The Impact on Judicial Workload.”

The study also found some challenges to remote court hearings. Litigants without access to technology may not be able to fully participate, and others may not have knowledge of running applications required to engage in virtual proceedings.

Texas judges report that virtual hearings generally take longer, in part because all parties can access the proceedings, resulting in fewer default judgments. This bodes well for ensuring justice for all in virtual state and local court hearings.

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Judges Observe Increased Participation in Virtual Hearings

The Pew Charitable Trusts notes that virtual hearings hold a great deal of promise, particularly for litigants acting as their own lawyers. Civil cases, including those involving eviction, debt collection and child support, do not guarantee a right to counsel, and often people represent themselves.

“For these litigants who are responsible for a variety of complex tasks — including finding the appropriate court to hear their case, filing motions, arguing before a judge, and interpreting laws — technology holds the promise of a more accessible system with better outcomes,” notes a Pew Charitable Trusts report, “How Courts Embraced Technology, Met the Pandemic Challenge and Revolutionized Their Operations.”

During the pandemic, civil courts improved participation rates thanks to enhanced access to proceedings, according to Pew. In June 2020, Arizona courts observed an 8 percent decrease year-over-year in the rate of default judgments because more litigants were participating. “Although national and other state data is limited, court officials across the country, including judges, administrators and attorneys, report increases in civil court appearance rates,” Pew notes.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, eviction cases saw failure-to-appear rates drop from 40 percent in 2019 to 13 percent in February 2021. Courts also recorded increased participation in virtual hearings in New Jersey, Michigan, Texas and other states.

“These state court reports of improved participation rates are consistent with national survey data in which judges cited increased participation as the leading improvement to come from the move to virtual proceedings,” Pew notes.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Remote court hearings expand justice system access.

The Digital Divide Challenges Full Participation in Remote Hearings

In a 2020 pandemic resource document, NCSC warns that the digital divide poses challenges to underserved communities seeking participation in remote hearings.

“While continuing to offer remote court processes, courts must always work to identify options for those who lack meaningful access to technology,” NCSC notes.

To meet the challenge, some courthouses have extended Wi-Fi into adjacent parking lots for public use. Courthouses also can ensure their websites are mobile-friendly for those who must participate remotely via phones. They might also consider establishing kiosks in convention centers or other community locations to facilitate participation in virtual hearings.

Moreover, litigants who do not know how to use courtroom applications may have trouble submitting documents, the NCSC notes in its study of Texas courts. NCSC recommends that courts should ensure the completion of all required documentation and its submission through electronic case management systems.

To make this happen, courts should offer informative interviews on the operation of the technology and also reach out to litigants to answer any questions. Ultimately, courthouses should simplify their processes to make document submission as easy as possible.

RELATED: Making ‘Justice for All’ a reality.

A State Court System Embraces Digital Transformation

Sirius, a CDW company, recently digitized paper-based procedures for the court cases in a state court system, focusing on assisting those litigants who represent themselves in court. The electronic document management system proved advantageous for all parties engaging in virtual proceedings.

Sirius followed that work with virtual hearing platforms and an online dashboard, which allowed judicial assistants to review and file digital documents, simplifying document management. The service provider used an agile approach, producing a minimal viable product to augment the court system’s existing applications. The goal was to eliminate the need to physically enter a courthouse.

The digital transformation of the court system also involved the creation of a customized chatbot that enabled litigants to converse with court personnel to ask questions or clarify procedures.

The project was a tremendous success, yielding a state court system that serves as a national leader in the administration of virtual hearings and remote proceedings.

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.


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