Conducting virtual court hearings and virtual court proceeding was initially met with a big dose of scepticism by judges, lawyers and other court users. Now more than 12 months living into the new normal, the sceptical voices are fading out and it’s more likely to hear a positive assessment of the virtual court hearing experience.
Whether it is about generic video conferencing platforms used for court hearings (like Zoom, Skype) or custom-developed court hearing technology like Virtual Hearing for Microsoft Teams, court users now are more likely to share positive feedback about how efficient court digitalization is. While the first months of the pandemic were quite unclear and everybody thought that the changes in court proceedings were temporary, now things are different. There are even signs that virtual courts are about to become part of the long term digital strategy of judicial institutions
According to interviews, conducted with more than 30 state and federal judges, lawyers, court staff in 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, the digital transformation in courts is probably going to stay.
“We’re going to be doing court business remotely forever. This has changed the world.” – Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and co-chair of the National Center for State Court’s pandemic rapid response team.
The beginning of the pandemic made the in-person hearing vs. virtual hearings matter into a black-and-white situation, now it’s looked at as a more layered question. For instance, in criminal court trials where the witness credibility is closely examined, in-person court appearances and hearings won’t be replaced by virtual ones. But civil court cases are likely to embrace the digital court hearing solution for permanent future use.
Kimberly Mueller, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California says, quoted by Bloomberg News:
“I’ve become persuaded that the video conferencing by Zoom for civil scheduling conferences, civil law in motion, and quite a bit of criminal pretrial work is a good enough equivalent to seeing someone in person”.
Related: How court case management system can reduce crime rates?
Embracing digital transformation via court case management systems, virtual hearing solutions, self-service portals is evident in many countries now. This e-Justice revolution brings a lot of novelty to the routine of courts. That’s why the opportunities in the sector must be approached strategically to avoid chaos. Especially now that we see changes that usually require 5 to 10 years to happen, roll out in the blink of an eye.
“In three months, we have changed more than in the past three decades, and now that we know innovation is possible, we have a unique opportunity to create long-term and much-needed change for our justice system.” – Bridget Mary McCormack, Michigan Supreme Court chief justice.
What does it mean for a justice system to be efficient? It means the management of caseload and backlog of court cases to proceed without delays. Of course, efficiency has different dimensions for different court users, but it all comes down to time. If we accept that the average duration of a court hearing is 20 minutes, imagine how much more time we add to this task by commuting, waiting, walking, etc. Those are all hours that could be spared with the help of technology.
“We have learned that we can achieve efficiencies without sacrificing what we value by using technology more than we did before, – Lee Rosenthal, chief judge in the Southern District of Texas, quoted by Bloomberg news.
Video conferencing tools are doing a great job in replacing the in-person court hearings. But if the courts aim to achieve long-term benefits from court hearings, they should look for a dedicated court hearing solution like Virtual Hearing for Microsoft Teams. It’s simply so because those are solutions designed for a specific set of court users. In other word they don’t just provide solution for virtual meetings, they actually convert virtual meetings into virtual court hearing.
Virtual courts also improve the accessibility of litigants. Carolyn Bell, a Florida state court judge, quoted by Bloomberg News says that virtual hearings led to fewer no-shows at the court hearings held by her. It’s simply so because litigants don’t have to take time off from work or disrupt their daily routine to appear in virtual court. Therefore they are more likely to keep their appointments.
Another benefit in terms of accessibility is a psychological one. Jeremy Fogel, director of the Berkley Judicial Institute, says that people who don’t have lawyers feel more confident when doing zoom court hearings or in Microsoft teams court hearings. It’s simply so because the videoconferencing platforms and virtual hearing solutions can be less intimidating for the people who represent themselves.
“In the state courts, particularly people that don’t have lawyers, when they’re doing the Zoom hearing they actually feel more equal and able to communicate,” Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge and an executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute.
The same applies to domestic violence victims who often feel vulnerable in the in-person presence of their abuser. Virtual courts are making justice more accessible to them simply by creating the needed psychological distance from their abuser.
Along with their benefits, remote court hearings come with some limitations. Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Public Defender Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, argues that witnesses are more likely to tell the truth if they have to look the judge, the jury, and an accused person in the eye.
What we saw take shape in the past 12 months was an innovation that usually takes from 5 to 10 years. That’s encouraging for the digital future of courts. Whether courts will extend their virtual hearing practices after the pandemic depends on the courts and judges. One thing is clear – courts that decide to continue with virtual proceedings will have to rethink whether they should do it with generic virtual conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype or shift to dedicated court hearing platforms for Microsoft Teams, etc.
If you are a judge or a court user, try now the Virtual Hearing for Microsoft Teams app from here. It’s free.
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