The rapid shift to online services during the COVID-19 pandemic pushed states’ civil courts to embrace electronic filing for defendants without lawyers, e-notarizations and fully virtual trials.
During the pandemic, civil courts moved many of their services online to prevent unwanted COVID outbreaks in their communities. Now, many are embracing the long-term use of digital tools to expedite routine proceedings and seat more jurors.
All 50 states and Washington, D.C., have initiated remote online hearings since the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, Qudsiya Naqui, civil legal system modernization officer with Pew Charitable Trusts, said at a recent event.
For years, state court systems followed a traditional adjudication model, so making operational or procedural changes had been slow. The pandemic-driven move to virtual processes not only increased efficiency, but it also ramped up the courts’ ability to more equitably deliver justice, experts said.
In the past three decades, 37 states adopted electronic filing systems for people without lawyers. That pace picked up between March and August of 2020, as 10 new states added e-filing options for people without counsel. The same can be said for e-notarization – 34 states had it in place prior to the pandemic, and 11 states changed their policies to either allow e-notarization or waive the notarization requirement altogether, Naqui said at the April 7 GovExec CX Summit.
Virtual hearings also increased participation by defendants. For instance, in Arizona between 2019 and 2020, a Pew study found that there was an 8% drop in default judgments, in which the court rules in favor of the plaintiff when defendants do not appear.
Among states that conducted fully virtual trials where jurors can serve remotely, Texas saw a big spike in juror attendance after the transition to an online system, according to David Slayton, vice president of court consulting services for the National Center for State Courts.
“In states like Texas, we thought 20% was a good appearance rate for jurors,” Slayton said. Traditionally, those who usually serve as jurors tend to be unemployed and unencumbered by economic hardships or childcare issues. With virtual trials, “we saw those appearance rates … going from 20% to literally 70, 80 or 90% for those summoned,” he said, adding that the serving jurors now tend to be much more diverse.
Lower default rates and lower failure-to-appear rates resulting from the move to virtual services are net positives for courts, Slayton said, as there are fewer warrants issued, and judges can operate with better and more accurate information. However, without a dedicated technology workforce, many courts still face a huge challenge in shifting to a virtual environment.
“Obviously, courts had tech staff in place that really were instrumental in helping us transition from the in-person world to a fully virtual world,” Slayton said. “State courts [in Texas] have over 80 million cases a year, and so when you think about moving 80 million cases with the various numbers of hearings, all of a sudden the technology assistance required to do that is quite significant.”
Slayton said one of the main challenges in modernizing courtrooms involves training officials in traditional roles, like bailiffs, clerks and judges. Court officers without the knowledge and technical skills needed in a virtual environment have contributed to longer remote hearings, according to a recent report issued by the National Center for State Courts. The solution, he said, could be workforce development.
Courts should consider incorporating “technical bailiffs” into their workforce, Slayton said. “If you think about it in the traditional sense, bailiffs have been in courtrooms to assist in running the operations and keeping things going. Maybe we need to transition to having a technical bailiff assist in that effort.”
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