As legal disputes move from the courthouse to teleconference or have indefinite delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, three civil justice experts—in an April 3 webinar hosted by the National Center for State Courts and now available online—discussed the critical need for more emphasis on clear information and triaging court cases. The global and rapid spread of coronavirus has radically changed how governments and the private sector operate, and courts have not been spared. Despite self-quarantine and government-mandated social distancing requirements, courts continue to provide essential services while grappling with a limited or remote-working staff.
Jim Sandman, former president of the Legal Services Corp. and chair of the American Bar Association Task Force on Pandemic Response, emphasized the importance of sharing information with the general public whether or not they have active court cases. As people encounter financial distress, housing instability, or other civil legal issues, “there will be a hunger for legal information on court websites,” said Sandman, “and easy ways to access that information.”
Erika Rickard, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on civil legal system modernization, agreed, and shared initial examples from courts such as Fairfax County, Virginia, and civil justice partners, including Michigan Legal Help, which each have tailored their information to be jargon-free and responsive to different users’ needs. Rickard also shared anecdotes of courts selecting which cases need to proceed on an emergency basis, and which cases to delay. For example, most jurisdictions are giving priority to hearings that protect child welfare, and are explicitly delaying evictions, foreclosures, debt collection suits, and wage garnishments.
Stacey Marz, administrative director for the Alaska Court System and co-chair of a national working group on process simplification in the courts, described that state’s experience. Based on Alaska’s strong history of hosting remote court hearings and services, Marz recommended having a range of low-tech and high-tech solutions to meet the needs of different court users, such as telephone options for those who do not have access to high-speed internet to participate in video hearings.
Over 700 court staff and civil justice stakeholders from over 40 states and U.S. territories took part in the webinar, asking questions ranging from how to deliver interpreter services to addressing the digital divide, meaning individuals who do not have smartphones, internet, or other technology that allows for remote participation.
Although panelists focused on steps courts can take today, they also discussed how courts can prepare for the onslaught of civil cases arising from the pandemic and the backlog that’s built up because the courts have been closed—including making effective use of technology in the administration of justice. Marz recommended thinking about procedural and process changes that, while needed in response to COVID-19, might improve how the court system operates and the administration of justice after the pandemic is over. Rickard encouraged courts to collect data and monitor the impact of orders and policy decisions that are made today, to inform understanding about what is working and what needs to be re-evaluated.
The National Center for State Courts shares resources about how state courts are responding to the pandemic at ncsc.org/pandemic.
Yolanda Lewis is senior director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ safety and justice projects, and Erika Rickard is director of Pew’s civil legal system modernization project.