Report: Remote Hearings Expand Access to the Justice System

Remote hearings generally take longer due to technical difficulties

The NCSC report is based on a year-long study that analyzed 1.25 million minutes of court data and comments from judges and court leaders in eight Texas jurisdictions. He revealed that virtual hearings last an average of 34% longer than in-person hearings, depending on the type of case. (Contract and divorce hearings had the largest time differences between the two formats, while variation/execution cases had the smallest difference.)

Technical difficulties were one of the main reasons for the lengthening of the hearings.

According to the report, about 1,500 Texas trial courts are using Zoom for remote hearings. And as a recent opinion piece from Government Technology points out, “Not all potential participants are proficient users, leading to frequent interruptions and delays. Additionally, not everyone has sufficient internet access and there are inequities in the devices used to access audiences. For example, built-in translation services for non-native English speakers are not available to people joining via mobile phone. Difficulty uploading documents and using visual aids can also lead to delays, forcing current court staff to take on technical support roles that push the limits of their knowledge.

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File sharing poses challenges, but litigants increase participation

A recent report by the Thomson Reuters Institute shows that another major technical challenge for virtual hearings relates to document collaboration and management – sharing and accessing evidence and media files, organizing evidence and communicating on annotations.

“While this is a serious issue in a civil case, it can be a harmful constitutional violation in a criminal case,” the report said. “In the future, this can be solved by having a better knowledge of technological solutions to facilitate their use. … As in many businesses, courts can also take advantage of advances in technology, while keeping cybersecurity issues in mind when it comes to storing evidence or sensitive documents. Courts and court staff will also want to consider making live and on-demand technology training sessions available to all attendees so that they can familiarize themselves with the technology before the hearing.

In both studies, participants indicated that remote hearings aren’t going away anytime soon.

In the Reuters report, an overwhelming majority of state and county/municipal courts represented in the research planned to proceed with hybrid hearings — a mix of in-person and virtual formats. Only 13% said they plan to fully resume in-person operations. Civil, criminal and family matters topped the list of types of hearings that would continue with a virtual component.

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“Remote hearings are here to stay,” NCSC Vice President for Court Counseling Services David Slayton said in a press release accompanying his organization’s report.

While increasing litigant participation, it is important for courts to identify and address technological issues with these remote proceedings, he said, pointing to one of the report’s recommendations to hire “bailiffs techniques”. These court staff or other staff would be responsible for establishing hearing links, scheduling parties, contacting them before hearings, and resolving any technical issues that arise during remote hearings. These tasks currently fall to many judges.

The report also calls on courts not to assume that all parties have access to the appropriate equipment needed to participate in virtual court proceedings, and notes that courts should make this equipment available in a safe and easily accessible location.