COVID-19 altered many aspects of our lives, including our government and legal system. For those who work in courts or who have been involved in the legal system over the past few years, there have been a lot of changes. Notably, from local courts to federal courts, hearings had to be held virtually because of the pandemic. As COVID-19 restrictions fall away, the courts are deciding what the court process will look like in the future. Will remote hearings continue to be a part of the legal process, or will courts return to their in-person protocols following the pandemic?
The State of Remote Hearings
Remote hearings started and became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person hearings began to pose significant public health risks. Remote hearings were a challenge at first. Judges, court clerks, and lawyers had to learn how to adapt to a new process. The technology was unfamiliar to many, and technical difficulties caused delays. However, as remote hearings continued to be used throughout the pandemic, people began to adapt to remote hearings and favor them for their accessibility. With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, people who work in the judicial system are determining how the process will move forward, and clerks and those that assist with case management and scheduling will need to adjust yet again.
Benefits and Limitations
People interacting with the court system have had many different perceptions and experiences with remote courts. One study by Duke University showed that court users who experienced virtual court sessions reported more positive feelings. In fact, of the 1,350 respondents, 45% indicated they'd prefer to attend court 100% virtually compared to 29% who said they would prefer a hybrid of in-person and remote court hearings (20% prefer in-person sessions only).
However, some people have criticized the remote court process for its technological difficulties. According to feedback from plaintiffs and defendants, there are also some instances when in-person hearings could still have value in the judicial process. For example, in the same survey referenced above, fewer than 17% of respondents shared that they prefer a completely virtual format for their final hearing.
With clear pros and cons, the question is whether remote hearings can improve the judicial process for clerks, judges, and other parties in the future. Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of virtual hearings.
Accessibility is undeniably one of the most important benefits of remote hearings. Virtual hearings enable participants to join from anywhere while maintaining public access when appropriate through streaming websites. This gives people with barriers to attending in person, like physical disabilities and limited access to transportation, equal access to hearings. Scheduling also tends to be more flexible for virtual hearings because they don’t require access to physical space, and online scheduling systems can make it easier for clerks to schedule and keep track of hearings. The increase in accessibility has dramatically increased engagement in the court hearing process. For instance, New Jersey’s no-show rate went from 20% to 0.3% the first week that remote hearings began.
On the other hand, remote hearings can be less accessible to some due to a lack of internet access or limited knowledge of technology. Some of these issues may have been addressed as use of Zoom and other innovations became widespread throughout the pandemic, causing most people to learn how to use these technologies. However, accessibility will still need to be improved if remote hearings continue going forward.
One of the primary disadvantages of remote hearings is technical difficulties. Virtual hearings can be difficult for elderly people and those who are less knowledgeable about technology. Unavoidable technical difficulties and glitches can also cause delays. When interpreters are involved, technical challenges may make it difficult to ensure all parties can understand what is being said. Clerks and other support staff must be knowledgeable about the technology the court is using so they can assist with any technical problems that arise and ensure all parties can access digital hearings.
Length of Hearings
Another potential downside of remote hearings is how much time they take. It’s been found that online hearings take 34% longer than in-person hearings. This results from technical difficulties as well as increased attendance (resulting in fewer default judgments) and parties’ lack of preparation. The impact of this could be mitigated by determining which types of hearings are suitable to be remote. For example, online dispute resolution for issues like traffic offenses or simple family law cases has been effective, but remote hearings are less appropriate for matters that are complex or expected to take a long time. Some argue that cases requiring cross examination should be held in person to discourage lying and have more impact on juries. By allowing only simpler hearings to be held online, courts may be able to streamline their processes while expanding accessibility.
The Future of Virtual versus On-Site Hearings
Overall, virtual hearings improve accessibility and, consequently, participation in the legal process. The way hearings are requested, scheduled, and moderated will need to adjust, impacting clerks and support staff. While staff may need to learn more about assisting with technological issues, virtual hearings can make scheduling easier. It is recommended that courts utilize a transparent, user-friendly approach to best benefit all participants.
In some instances virtual hearings are not an option, such as criminal cases that require on-site juries combined with law enforcement witnesses. This is where online applications and mobile devices can be used to notify civilians and sworn personnel alike about their court attendance requirements. Use of interactive displays, video testimonies, and multiple screens to show documents are all other ways in which technology is enhancing the on-site courtroom experience.
Ultimately, remote hearings are expected to remain a part of the court system, likely in a hybrid model. A hybrid court system allows simpler cases to be held online and more complex cases in person.