A new report from a pandemic working group found strong support for maintaining full remote access to legal proceedings.
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye’s Working Group on Post-Pandemic Initiatives met with court users from 46 groups – including civil and criminal attorneys, law enforcement, legal counsels, addiction counselors and court officials – who presented their input on changes in court due to the pandemic processes initiated and their experiences with remote hearings.
The working group recommended California permanently expand and maximize remote access for most procedures, rather than resorting to pre-pandemic levels of in-person surgery. The judicial council should encourage and support the courts to significantly expand remote access while adopting guidelines that ensure consistency and fairness nationwide while offering the flexibility to meet local needs, the working group wrote.
“Providing access to justice through remote technology improves access to justice,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye. “This topic is about justice and fairness because it can help those who may miss their jobs or have to travel long distances to attend short court hearings. It is about transparency because remote negotiation makes court hearings more accessible to the public and the media. Of course, remote technology shouldn’t replace all face-to-face trials, but Californians should be free to conduct their business remotely whenever appropriate. “
Most of the people who presented to the working group were strongly in favor of maintaining full remote access to legal proceedings. Some of the entries included are listed below.
Better access for court users: Court users can participate in a remote negotiation without missing a job or organizing childcare, saving transportation time and costs. Californians who came to court in person fell from about 40 million to 12 million during the pandemic; 75 percent of the self-help visitors decided to use services remotely. Collaborating Court participants can take part in remote performances without interrupting drug or medical treatment. Online mediation tools helped members of the military and outside of the state attend family court hearings. In juvenile criminal cases, distance options met the needs of those with non-traditional work schedules, incarcerated parents and adolescents in school to participate. (In El Dorado County, teenagers were driven 280 kilometers over a mountain pass to go to court, raising safety concerns).
Victims often prefer to appear from afar: Vulnerable court users, such as victims of domestic violence or violence against the elderly, stated that they were less afraid and stressed because they did not have to appear in court with the perpetrator.
Availability of expert testimony: Civil and criminal lawyers reported that experts were more likely to testify if they did not have to travel a full day to appear in court.
Virtual visits encourage better relationships and participation: Many families involved in legal proceedings face housing problems and tend to change residence as their case progresses. This can make it difficult to appear in court and sustain personal visits. Parents who live outside of the state and have never attended procedures or visits can now do so remotely. In addiction cases, offering virtual visits promotes relationships between birth parents and foster parents and helps children stay in touch with parents and other supportive adults in their lives.
Remote options increase efficiency, security and participation: Remote appearances are efficient for many areas of criminal and civil proceedings, such as: B. Indictments, preliminary negotiations and hearings on progress reports. They reduced the number of no-shows in many courts, and the courts also saw more efficient work for staff and less downtime in courtrooms.
Court users expect it: Court users expect these options should be available when the courts can serve people remotely equally or better.
According to the report, through remote hearings, California lawsuits were able to resolve a far greater percentage of certain types of cases during the pandemic.
California’s higher courts had an average clearance rate of 86 percent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first months of the pandemic (March-August 2020) this average fell to 73 percent. A court’s clearing rate is the percentage of all cases that have been resolved.
But in areas where courts relied almost entirely on remote video negotiation – particularly juvenile delinquency and addiction cases – clearance rates improved even above pre-pandemic levels, the data showed. Remote negotiations enabled courts not only to deal with current youth matters, but also to clear past backlogs, increasing youth clearance rates up to 130 percent.
Remote hearings also helped increase the child support resolution rate since the pandemic began by 10 percent to pre-pandemic levels.
But in criminal and other cases where remote negotiation was far less common, clearance rates dropped by about 20 percent.
Some speakers raised concerns about remote procedures and services, including:
Digital divide: Internet bandwidth is an issue in rural counties, forest fire counties, and tribal areas, as well as the ability to afford access and navigate the technology.
Potential for Less Accurate Court Records: Court Rapporteurs expressed concerns that technological disruptions and other issues could affect their requirement to provide a full, complete court record to a remote trial.
Virtual Courtroom Challenges: Some courts are not as technically advanced as others, and courts have reported problems with people recording remote proceedings in violation of the law or court orders. The lack of decency in the courtroom was also a problem.
Criminal Concerns: Some argue that remote access to critical stages of criminal proceedings is not constitutionally allowed.
Advantages of personal interaction: In many proceedings it is helpful to have the judge in the same room as the person affected by your decision.