Courts Explore New Funding Sources to Expand Public Access During Pandemic

Webinar panelists discuss how federal pass-through dollars can boost services and technologies

Courts Explore New Funding Sources to Expand Public Access During Pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil courts across the country are moving quickly to incorporate new technologies and remote services so they can serve the public with fewer courthouse visits. But many jurisdictions face significant funding challenges in implementing such changes.

At a Sept. 9 webinar hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts for court officials and other civil justice stakeholders, panelists discussed state-administered federal fundsknown as pass-through funding—available to states and territories. Those resources include block grants and money appropriated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Speakers offered tips for court administrators seeking such funding to boost remote capabilities or to ensure safety in court facilities.

Speakers stressed the opportunities to use the pass-through money to support technology innovations and other tools and services to benefit civil court users and emphasized how changes made in response to the pandemic can  help courts better serve their communities once the health emergency has abated.

Karen Ann Lash, director of the Justice in Government Project, highlighted a sampling of funding opportunities authorized under the CARES Act. Those include the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), typically administered by state executive branches, and the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program, administered by state and local Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant managers already in place.

During the webinar, court administrators from New Hampshire and New Mexico spoke about their experiences applying for, or exploring whether to apply for, some of these funds. Jacqueline Waters, director of the New Hampshire e-Court program, said her state’s judicial branch had received $1.5 million in CRF money to expand cleaning and sanitizing services, provide additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for court users and staff, and support projects that leverage technology to expand teleworking and public access to court proceedings.

Aja Brooks, who directs the Center for Self Help and Dispute Resolution for the 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, detailed her court’s work considering whether to seek Community Development Block Grant funds. Although the court ultimately decided not to pursue the funding, Brooks spoke about the process, including insights into what technical assistance officials received, what factors influenced their decision not to pursue the funding, and how the process will shape future funding pursuits.

Advice for courts seeking funding

Attendees asked panelists about strategies for seeking funding, managing the federal grants, and other concerns.

Some had questions about limitations on particular sources. For example, CRF can be used only for “necessary expenditures incurred due to” COVID-19 that were not already accounted for in the government’s budget approved as of March 27, and that were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020. Still, even with that deadline approaching, Lash encouraged court officials and their legal partners to explore tapping this source. Some states may still have unobligated funds, she said, while others could discover in October or November that some of their original subgrantees are unable to spend their full awards.

“Every state will still have unmet needs that meet CRF criteria,” she explained. “You want your CRF decision-makers to know what your court still needs to ensure access to justice for litigants and a safe environment for staff and the public.”

Possible late expenses linked to the pandemic could include additional videoconferencing equipment and platforms to enable remote hearings, online legal information content and e-filing capacity, and not otherwise covered PPE expenses for staff and court visitors.

Waters recommended that courts develop implementation plans to assist with grant management. These could include putting improved accounting systems and practices in place to track grant-funded expenditures to ensure full reimbursement. She also suggested that officials develop detailed implementation plans for soon-to-be-funded projects while waiting for final approvals or award notices.

“The rapid pace of developing the grant proposal may reduce time spent pre-planning your projects,” Waters cautioned. “Use the time between your submission and award notification to iteratively develop more detailed plans that factor in any new information that arises. You will be able to launch projects shortly after receiving funds if you have your detailed plans ready to go.”

Brooks’ advice focused on how courts can explore federal pass-through money. She recommended taking part in a consultation program offered by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Officials can schedule a free 30-minute “The Doctor Is In” consultation with NCSC staff to get individualized support.

She advised officials to meet with court stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of pursuing the federal support. They should discuss what permissions would be needed to move forward, whether the court has pursued federal funding before, and what procedures must be followed.

“We heard over and over again that we should partner with a legal services organization,’’ Brooks said. “Many courts are already working with legal services organizations, so it just comes down to being creative about how to collaborate on an idea that works for both partners.”

Resources for courts and civil justice stakeholders

In addition to this webinar, courts can use several online resources and technical assistance options. Panelists highlighted episodes of the NCSC series Tiny Chats, which discuss topics relevant to courts. The third Tiny Chat highlights state-administered federal pass-through funds available to courts. It also references a companion grants matrix that provides an overview of various funding streams.

With funding from Pew, Lash has begun assembling case studies on innovative uses of federal pass-through funds. Among the studies are examples of how courts have used AmeriCorps money and volunteers and Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Victim Assistance Formula Grants to provide services to self-represented litigants so they do not have to navigate legal problems on their own. Those receiving VOCA funding also partner with legal aid organizations to help victims of crime find needed resources.

The funding possibilities and related resources highlighted at the webinar can help support court operations beyond the pandemic. “Long after there is a vaccine,” Lash said, “we will still need the remote technologies and innovations created during the pandemic to make securing justice more convenient, accessible, and transparent.”

Erika Rickard is a director and Casey Chiappetta is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization initiative.