Courts got creative during the pandemic – here’s what’s stuck
As the pandemic swept through the spring of 2020, many courts temporarily suspended postponed jury trials and non-emergency hearings; limited access to courthouse facilities and dismissal of non-essential workers home. Court teams across the country have been scrambling to find ways to translate their processes beyond courthouse gates and ensure they can still serve both tech-savvy residents and those who have little digital access.
A lesson that emerged: As you navigate these new waters, don’t wait to find the perfect digital tools – just start trying Something and see what works, said Judge Clemens Landau of the Salt Lake City Court of Justice.
“If you get the minimum of viable product, you will end up getting the maximum,” Clemens said at the 2021 Courts Technology Conference (CTC) at the National Center for State Court (NCC). “It’s important to say, ‘Yes, it has flaws, but compare it to what we used to do: it had flaws too.’ There are always flaws, but let’s get something out and work towards something.
The Clemens court had postponed thousands of cases during its four-month closure. As the team prepared in June 2020 for the reopening, orders poured in calling for expedited processing for many of them.
“[Those cases] were going to crush us all from July 1, ”Clemens said.
Just scheduling the hearings was going to be a problem. The tribunal simply did not have the capacity to handle all the stakeholders who called to book court dates, and it did not always have the contact details to organize hearings on its own.
The solution? Pick a common planning tool, link it to the court website, and see what happens.
The state’s judicial branch CIO, Heidi Anderson, suggested using Doodle to allow site visitors to schedule hearings. Rather than a prolonged search for the perfect, tailored tool, Clemens said they just decided to give it a try.
“I said, ‘Well, nobody has better ideas.’ So we went ahead and did it, ”he said.
“It didn’t go well at first,” admitted Clemens, “but it was a way to interface with thousands of people who needed to move their case forward.”
The court spent around $ 60 on two accounts and custom settings so voters were asked to provide details such as their contact details, the need for an interpreter, and whether they had a lawyer.
Adopting general purpose software turned out to have additional benefits: many residents were already familiar with how it works. Most importantly, the selection of a tool allows the court to start tackling the dreaded scheduling problem. Virtual schedules quickly filled up and the Clemens court continues to use the offer.
CLERK’S VIRTUAL COUNTER
Judicial teams have had to be sensitive to the varying levels of technological familiarity of voters when attempting to provide digital hearings and services. This job is to be prepared to guide residents.
Nicole Evans, a court administrator for a district court in East Lansing, Mich., Said her team not only rendered the hearings virtual, but also the clerks’ office hours. Instead, staff who would normally be on call at a desk in the physical facility began to set up a virtual “court counter” on Zoom, to meet one-on-one with residents who called or broadcast a video.
This allowed clerks to continue to answer questions on everything from disputing a ticket to how to make payments, while giving residents a taste of the platform against a backdrop of lower stakes than a formal hearing.
The Zoom waiting room landing page also proved to be a useful way to get information, with the court posting its emails and hours of operation on screen.
COURTYARD GOES ON THE ROAD, AND THE RIVER
However, not all residents can easily access video conferencing, and holding hearings remotely can mean physically going to court.
Clemens said efforts to serve the homeless have involved judges and public advocates taking their laptops and setting up in awnings and pop-up vans in parking lots near the settlements, from which they offer services.
It’s not the only mobile court effort either, and Clemens said court officials periodically travel in canoes and kayaks to reach the homeless population living along the riverbanks. Court staff bring hot spots and laptops to allow other participants to join virtually.
“The first canoe is always the public defenders, the second canoe is usually Kim, who is a social worker, then some service providers, then the last canoe is the judge with a bailiff to hear the case and everyone is on. Webex, ”he said. Explain.
LOW AND HIGH TECHNOLOGY COMMUNICATIONS
Adopting new methods is one thing, making sure voters know about them is quite another.
Courthouse closures have forced staff to adopt new methods of publicizing new digital methods and other updates. Judges could not assume that residents would regularly check court websites.
For Clemens, one response was to join social media, where his posts reached lawyers who would spread the word to their own clients.
“Those [social media accounts] are all things that I think judges see with some fear, because you just don’t want to be seen as impartial, ”Clemens noted, but the pandemic has changed that calculation.
Yet relying solely on the internet would overlook those without easy access, and Clemens said his team had also resorted to information sheets printed with duct tape on the courthouse windows, to reach a wider audience.
Court staff also set up an unused police camper van outside the courthouse during the early days of the pandemic to speak to anyone who had not heard of the closures and were still showing up for hearings.