The threats imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have been far-reaching. Several vulnerable groups have been recognized, and many businesses and organizations have had to make some changes. As a result of social distancing and lockdowns, schools, businesses, and even social events have embraced videoconferencing and remote interactions. But you may not appreciate that judicial systems have done the same. Throughout the country, a virtual courtroom is now the norm.
In order to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread, local, state, and federal judicial systems now operate a digital court. In fact, this week the U.S. Supreme Court began using a digital court platform to hear cases. In some ways, a virtual court has some notable advantages in addition to its primary purpose of minimize COVID-19 transmission. But at the same time, some difficulties have been experienced in addition to some legal challenges. While technology has clearly come to the rescue, it will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.
“Building on this [virtual court] framework, we can now begin to focus on the rest of our caseload, enabling judges and non-judicial employees across the state, who are anxious to get back to work and do their part, to be active and serve the public in this time of great need” – Janet DiFiore, Chief Justice in New York state
The Evolving Digital Court Setting
For most judicial systems, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in serious reductions in dockets as of mid-March. At that point, only essential and emergent cases that had to be heard were considered for judicial rulings. However, this quickly changed with virtual court hearings arranged for much of the process. Judges, attorneys, court reporters, and translators were connected by videoconferencing. Likewise, defendants would either appear at these hearings through closed circuit television at the courthouse. In the first several weeks, virtual court hearings were mainly used for non-essential proceedings.
However, in the last few weeks, courts have begun using these same digital court procedures for essential cases. Civil, criminal and emergent hearings are not being heard via virtual court sessions in many states. Most courtrooms are using videoconferencing apps like Zoom. Likewise, some are providing video access to proceedings over YouTube so that criminal cases meet requirements to be heard publicly. The U.S. Supreme Court jumped on board this week as well. Justices are hearing and discussing cases via teleconferencing, and live audio feeds are being provided to the public. It would thus appear that digital courts are now in session for all types of judicial cases.
“I don’t think it’s anywhere near perfect. They’ve made as many accommodations as they practically can.” – Amy Thompson, Deputy of Central Operations, Cook County Public Defender’s Office
Virtual Court Hearings Not Without Challenges
As you might imagine, the shift from a regular courtroom to a digital court setting posed some difficulties. Like many businesses making such shifts, audio and video technical problems often surface. This naturally causes delays that make virtual court hearings longer than they need to be. However, at the same time, a digital court platform works more effectively on schedule. Rather than defendants and attorneys having to wait hours, digital court hearings tend to be more punctual. Though the caseload is reduced, this represents one of the perks of this new approach.
Other challenges involve a lack of access to needed technologies. Some individuals do not have smartphones or computers needed to engage in videoconferencing. In these instances, they may choose to dial in by phone, depending on the circumstances. However, phone interfaces that connect with video feeds are notorious for having problems. In many cases, individuals must still appear in court, which partially defeats the purpose of virtual court. Courts have worked around this by having specific rooms designated for videoconference participation. However, many find these solutions, as well as digital courts in general, less than ideal.
“[A video hearing] does not perfectly translate to our business. When your freedom is at stake, you’re allowed to be present in court.” – David Gaeger, Criminal Defense Attorney, Chicago
Legal Issues with Digital Court Platforms
Naturally, the decision to pursue a digital court platform emerged out of concerns for people’s health and safety. The coronavirus pandemic has forced its evolution at a rapid pace. However, this is not the first time a virtual court has been attempted. In New York, virtual court hearings appeared in 1999 for some specific legal proceedings. After a lawsuit was filed subsequently however, the state abandoned these formats. The lawsuit claimed that a digital court platform violated individuals’ Constitutional rights of due process. Though the case was never heard, such issues still need to be addressed.
Other legal issues exist for digital court proceedings as well. For example, the inability for judges to see family members at bind hearings could affect rulings. The presence of family members often show support that influence bond issuances and amount determinations. In other instances, there is a lack of public access to the legal proceedings. In some types of cases, particularly criminal ones, this also violates individual rights. Lastly, some believe it should be an inherent right for the accused to see the judge and their accusers face to face. These types of legal issues have been placed on the backburner for now. But without question, these will have to be addressed if virtual courts continue.
A Necessary Solution Amidst a Pandemic
With caseloads backing up with coronavirus restrictions, solutions were desperately needed. From this perspective, technology has enabled judicial systems to get back on track with new forms of digital justice. Though both technical and legal issues remain, none are so overwhelming that remedies cannot be devised. Likewise, it is notable that these new digital court platforms do offer some advantages in efficiency and resource use. Therefore, it is quite probable virtual court hearings will persist well after the COVID-19 pandemic resolves. The good outweighs the bad, and therefore, everyone has an incentive to continue to improve this new approach to jurisprudence.