The coronavirus pandemic has forced government agencies at all levels to quickly transform how they do business to help people maintain social distance—and courts are no different. Over the past two decades, however, state courts had already moved in that direction, taking steps to move processes online, including increased use of online dispute resolution (ODR), electronic filing, and other tools to increase efficiency and ease access for litigants.
Now courts have issued emergency orders to expand the use of these tools at a time when appearing in a courthouse has not been possible. Even as some state courts have begun the gradual reopening process, the use of videoconferencing technologies has quickly emerged as an essential strategy to ensure that the system continues to function and remains accessible to users.
Transitioning from in-person proceedings to conducting court business entirely online requires a myriad of logistical considerations; training for judges, court staff, and litigants; and new mechanisms to ensure hearings are accessible to the public, as required by law in most cases. Texas and Michigan are among the states that have adapted remote hearing programs to respond to this unprecedented public health emergency linked to the spread of COVID-19.
On March 25, Michigan’s Supreme Court and State Court Administrative Office convened the state’s Virtual Courtroom Task Force to develop a plan for bringing court proceedings online to help limit coronavirus transmission. Members include a cross-section of stakeholders, including judges, court administrators, and members of the bar.
The task force on April 7 released the Michigan Trial Courts Virtual Courtroom Standards and Guidelines, based on an assessment of national and state best practices to ensure that virtual courtrooms operate efficiently and with transparency—imperatives that have been long-standing priorities for in-person hearings.
The guidelines recommend that all virtual hearings be recorded and offer suggestions for recording options as well as transcript-generating services. The task force also offered approaches that would ensure confidentiality for litigants where necessary or appropriate, providing specific instructions on how to hide phone numbers in video technology software. Importantly, the guidelines include specific recommendations on how to make proceedings accessible to the media and public by posting dockets online, using streaming services to present hearings live, and providing instructions on how to watch hearings via the internet.
Michigan trial courts conducted more than 35,000 Zoom meetings from April 1 through June 1, 2020, totaling more than 200,000 hours of hearings, according to John Nevin, the court system’s public information officer. The public can access the livestreams through the Virtual Courtroom Directory by clicking on a county, finding a judge, and clicking “watch.” Since its launch in mid-May, the site has been used more than 15,000 times.
Michigan’s Chief Justice Bridget McCormack sees a transformative change underway.
“Instead of focusing resources on how we retool old ways to get people back into courthouses, where all the old problems of lack of access persist, we must focus resources on bringing justice to people where they live,” McCormack said in a statement to Pew. “Courts need a new paradigm for doing business in a COVID-19 world—one that is more efficient, more convenient and accessible for litigants, more transparent, and less costly.”
Texas also has acted to move proceedings online. On March 13, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order directing courts in the state’s 254 counties to “allow or require” remote participation in all proceedings, either through video- or teleconference, except for jury trials. Jurors are not permitted to participate remotely. The Texas courts must provide adequate notice to all hearing participants of the availability of the remote proceedings and make them accessible to the public.
To this end, the Texas Office of Court Administration has developed a resource page to guide local jurisdictions through the process of implementing and using remote technologies. The page provides tools and instructions on how to ensure that hearings are publicly available. The state court website also offers a list of all jurisdictions where hearings may be streamed live on YouTube.
At the local level, Texas courts have implemented state emergency order provisions to maximize the continuation of regular business through remote hearings. For example, the Denton County probate court now offers instructions on the use of Zoom as a video-teleconferencing tool and includes a listing of court services that may be accomplished using this technology.
With the implementation of Zoom-based proceedings, the system held about 122,000 remote hearings between March 24 and June 1, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
“Now that the pandemic has compelled us to bring processes online, we’re never going back to the old way of doing business,” said David Slayton, the administrative director of the Texas courts.
The approaches to remote hearings that Texas and Michigan put in place in response to COVID-19 in many instances complement the steps that courts are already taking to modernize their procedures and practices. Together, these strategies emphasize the importance of remaining committed to efficiency, accessibility, and transparency for all parties involved when incorporating technology in the civil court system—both in the context of the current emergency and beyond.
Erika Rickard directs and Qudsiya Naqui is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization initiative.