With social distancing recommendations in place by the CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic, courts have found new ways to conduct proceedings. Technology has played a large role in transforming proceedings, with numerous states seeing success with these new practices.
1) Online Court Proceedings
Transitioning in-person court proceedings into virtual meetings is one way personnel have started moving towards safer alternatives. The Michigan Supreme Court and the State Court Administrative Office worked together to create a task force designed specifically to move the state’s court proceedings online. The regulations they put together include ensuring all virtual hearings are recorded, making streaming services accessible to the media and the public, and adhering to confidentiality requirements. This means taking steps to hide personal data, such as phone numbers that may appear on video software.
After implementing this practice, the state conducted more than 35,000 meetings via the online platform Zoom in April and May 2020, totaling over 200,000 hours of virtual hearings. When asked about this decision during an interview with Pew, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack expressed her thoughts on the new online format.
“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. 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.”
A similar approach has been taken in Texas, where the state’s Supreme Court ordered counties to “allow or require” remote participation in court proceedings, excluding jury trials, through videoconferencing or teleconferencing. Officials also developed a webpage with resources designed to help facilities implement the remote technology.
Moving to this type of digital court format may be simplified by a solution that helps track scheduling updates and court attendance to ensure everyone involved has the latest information about their legal proceedings.
2) Online Dispute Resolution
Another way to minimize the number of face-to-face meetings has been turning to online dispute resolution. This is primarily intended for situations that individuals can handle on their own, virtually, without requiring them to appear in court. The goal of online dispute resolution is “to facilitate the quick resolution of conflicts to the satisfaction of both parties” for lower-value and high-volume cases. These include:
- Traffic offenses
- Small claims
- Low-conflict family cases
3) Social Distancing Practices
Instead of having to cancel all previously planned events, some gatherings have still taken place—at a distance! States like Missouri and Michigan have gotten creative with ways to hold naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. In western Missouri, the lobby of the Kansas City courthouse was the location for a ceremony welcoming new Americans, while on the opposite side of the state, family and friends gathered for a ceremony at a drive-in theater (that also recently doubled as the venue for high school graduations). Guests stayed in their cars and watched the ceremony on screens, connecting to radio stations for audio.
In Michigan, new citizens took their oaths at a drive-through naturalization event; after passing checkpoints to verify that each car’s occupants were not experiencing any coronavirus symptoms, they individually drove up to a podium where a judge waited to swear them in.
Naturalization ceremonies aren’t the only events that have taken on a new approach. Probation and pretrial officers in Washington have started conducting virtual home visits so they can still check in with people under supervision without putting anyone at risk of contracting the virus. Using platforms like FaceTime and Google hangouts, they can tour residences to ensure people remain in the correct locations (and verify with family members or neighbors if the individuals in question don’t have access to this technology).
4) Virtual Educational Resources
Summer is usually a time for students and graduates to look for new jobs or internships, but what did this process look like during a global pandemic? For some students looking to apply for judicial clerkships, it meant utilizing online resources for applications and interviews. They uploaded their information electronically and send it to all the judges they were interested in working with via the online database.
Students in Alabama learned about the inner workings of criminal and civil processes digitally, instead of being present in person for their summer internship programs. In 2020, more than 50 students were plugging in for online meetings with criminal law experts and lawyers, as well as lessons in drafting court orders, learning about working in chambers, and more—getting real-world experience online.
Although post-COVID-19 court processes are still evolving, proceedings have continued while working to maintain the health and safety of everyone involved. For more insight into how to keep up with rapidly changing regulations or ways to optimize your judicial processes, subscribe to our blog!