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Remote Hearings May Take Longer But They Serve More People

The COVID-inspired pivot to remote court hearings may be here to stay. While virtual proceedings may need improved tech support, overall they allow more people to be heard in the justice system.

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You’ve likely stumbled across the adage “Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.” In government, a primary goal is to serve residents as effectively as possible, but many in-person methods turned dangerous overnight as the pandemic struck more than two years ago. Fast forward to today, when most COVID-19 restrictions have subsided and service delivery in the “after” times has begun to take shape.

A state chief information officer I talked to recently spoke of the impossibility of just pressing rewind and resuming operations as they were in early 2020. “This notion of returning to something is a fallacy,” he said, noting how effective remote work has proven to be. Agencies all over the country are now evaluating what pandemic-era practices should continue.

The nonprofit National Center for State Courts (NCSC), in an effort supported by the State Justice Institute, recently published a study that took a detailed look at remote hearings in state courts in Texas. Participating judges from eight counties ranging from small to large recorded details of their work over a three-week period in April 2021. During that time, 85 percent of their hearings were conducted remotely.

One major takeaway offered by the study was the fact that on average, remote court proceedings take about one-third longer than in-person proceedings. There are many reasons for that.

Being able to connect in remotely to a hearing makes the process considerably more convenient for the parties involved, and as a result, hearings take longer since more people participate. Plaintiffs and defendants, not to mention countless other stakeholders (witnesses, experts, etc.), can participate without huge disruptions to their workday and having to deal with related needs like transportation and child care. Virtual proceedings can also offer more scheduling flexibility, further increasing the likelihood that parties will make their court dates. In addition, judges noted additional advantages in family-related cases where remote hearings reduce emotional distress caused by having adversarial parties gathered under one roof at the courthouse.

Another factor contributing to longer hearing times has to do with technology. Today, about 1,500 trial courts in Texas are using the video conferencing platform Zoom for remote hearings. But not all would-be participants are proficient users, leading to frequent disruptions and delays. In addition, not everyone has sufficient Internet access and there are inequities when it comes to the devices used to access hearings. For example, embedded translation services for non-native English speakers aren’t available to people joining via cellphone. Difficulty uploading documents and using visual aids can cause delays as well, forcing current judicial staff into tech support roles that stretch the bounds of their knowledge.

Interestingly, the findings from the NCSC study of Texas judges largely mirror conclusions from court systems in other states, including a 2020 study from the Nevada Court Improvement Program and a Utah Court Improvement Program study in 2021. But there are plenty of good suggestions for how to make virtual hearings more workable for the long term.

Recommendations include enlisting “technology bailiffs” to shepherd participants through remote hearings. They would reach out beforehand to prep the parties involved on technical requirements for participation, identify and remedy gaps and facilitate and troubleshoot the actual proceeding. Such staff could also offer valuable input on necessary tools and platforms to make things run as smoothly as possible.

“Courts need to be creative in how they solve problems with the digital divide,” said Jeffrey Tsunekawa, director of research and court services for the Texas Office of Court Administration, in the NCSC’s study press release. “Loaning out computer equipment and setting up remote hearing stations that people can use who may not have personal computer equipment are just two of the creative ways courts in Texas have worked to bridge that gap.”

To return to the point I opened with, if the goal is to provide broad access to the justice system, virtual court operations are an example of a pivot that deserves further investment to smooth out the rough spots for the long term.
Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.