Courts ill-equipped for pandemic and long-term closures

Because of the unprecedented closings and social-distancing recommendations related to novel coronavirus (and now national state of emergency), I’ve been on the lookout for the impact on those needing court services or in the middle of navigating disputes and cases. 

Most of what I’ve seen involves postponements and closures. I’m hearing on social channels from lawyers who are worried about safety, particularly in the criminal courts, where the detainee population is at increased risk in addition to the risk faced by courtroom workers.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

As David Michaels said recently on Twitter, “Requiring lawyers to spend time in a courtroom for matters that can be handled remotely via video-conference, phone or even email is bad for #A2J.” 

It’s not surprising that in response to the virus threat that some jurisdictions are relaxing bail requirements or simply releasing pre-trial detainees. Cuyahoga County made that call on Thursday.

And it’s not surprising that courts all around are closing, especially in cases of jury trials that involve large pools of people congregating in court. Bill Raftery at the National Center for State Courts is keeping a running list of responses and actions by courts

What is surprising is that there are so few technology-driven alternatives already being used by the courts. I’m seeing lots of closures and implementation of protocols allowing emergency proceedings.  But I’m not seeing that courts have invested in technologies that would keep systems running in cases of emergencies and sustained periods of quarantine. 

Clio’s Lawyer in Residence Joshua Lenon suggested on Twitter, “If you’re a state court administrator, now is a great time to push for state-wide e-filing.”

It’s hard to believe that e-filing isn’t a baseline at this point and that remote conferencing technologies aren’t part of the overall court ecosystem.

Then again, as I was looking for good response models, I was struck by the abysmal user experience at most court websites. Arizona was an exception. The state’s main court page even has a chatbot to help visitors navigate the system.

I’m not sure how many states have full-blown pandemic plans, but the one I saw from California is from 2006 and seems pretty dated. Florida’s was drafted about the same time, but it is more regularly updated and notes its latest update was March 2020. The Texas benchbook for a pandemic response was also updated this year.

As of this writing, California courts remained open and Florida’s largely closed. In California, Arizona, and Florida, there are already many options for those dealing with the courts to conduct court business without going to a courthouse. 

Arizona and California have self-help centers that have digital counterparts. In Santa Clara County for example, self-represented litigants can use an email form to get help navigating their matters. 

The Santa Clara courts are also offering alternatives for coming to court, including:

Paying traffic tickets online, e-filing, and online form completion options. 

Jurisdictions that use the remote appearance technology provided by CourtCall will also benefit from waived late fees for appearances scheduled between March 12 and April 30, 2020.

Several states, including Delaware, South Carolina, and Texas, have urged parties to use telephone or video conferencing whenever possible. 

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