The pandemic forced many courts to adapt their operations with innovative strategies including the use of virtual hearings.
But what does that mean for state courts, the people who use them and the legislatures that oversee them, given that virtual hearings might be here to stay?
One state recently tried to find out. The Texas Office of Court Administration and the National Center for State Courts released their findings in the report “The Use of Remote Hearings in Texas State Courts: The Impact on Judicial Workload.” The 12-month study looked at eight Texas court jurisdictions to determine the impact of remote hearings on the efficiency of judicial workload practices and to explore potential benefits, such as improved access.
The authors held a series of three focus groups with judges to gather their perspective on a range of issues.
Remote hearings take about 34% longer. This largely results from technical issues, lack of parties’ preparation, fewer default judgments and increased participation.
Participation increases. Because participants can connect from anywhere and find convenient times using online scheduling tools, court attendance rises.
The type of hearing is more important than the type of case. Remote technology works best for hearings that are short in duration, limited in scope or affect people’s ability to get on with their lives. Examples include status, permanency, discovery or motions hearings; self-represented divorce dockets (especially when parties have completed agreements); non-evidentiary or non-witness cases; and many types of family law hearings.
Challenges remain. Cases involving interpreters or people with uneven access to or education with technology are key areas for innovation: “technology bailiffs” are one potential solution.
With virtual hearings likely to be a long-term change, legislatures with oversight of the courts must stay abreast of ongoing innovations and how they might affect their constituents. Fourteen bills affecting “virtual” or “remote” hearings are currently being considered by lawmakers across the country. Procedures for requesting virtual hearings and the use of virtual hearings in criminal cases are two of the issues addressed in recent measures.
Reach out to NCSL at any time for more information on how courts are implementing remote and virtual hearings.