The COVID-19 pandemic was undeniably tragic for people all over the world and caused massive upheaval in almost every industry, including the need for remote court hearings.
Silver linings from the virus and the shutdowns that resulted continue to emerge, one of which being the success of California’s remote legal proceeding program.
In this article, we’ll explore the results of a recent survey aimed at gauging how actual users felt about the remote courtroom program.
We’ll also take a look at some of the reasons why courts should continue to expand these programs, regardless of whether the country is threatened by a pandemic.
Remote court hearings in California
Although California courts allowed some remote access in some circumstances prior to the pandemic, the 2020 surge in virus transmissions, illnesses, and deaths prompted an emergency rule allowing courts to require remote access to civil court proceedings.
As one might expect, the early days of mandated remote courtrooms came with plenty of technology glitches (the least forgettable among them, perhaps, the Texas attorney who appeared on screen during a hearing with the face of a cat).
Overall, however, remote courtroom access ended up being a massive success for California’s court system, helping alleviate a massive backlog of thousands of cases that need to be heard, in addition to numerous other benefits we’ll discuss in this article.
The results are in
In early November 2022, the Judicial Council of California issued a report to the Legislature that summarized the background and results of the State’s remote court access program.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the report was the user satisfaction data.
From over 33,000 users surveyed between March and September 2022, over 96% reported having positive experiences with remote access. Of those survey participants, 6,684 were court users and 26,180 were court workers.
In California, around 6,000 remote hearings take place daily, which translates to about 700 per hour, and anyone who has ever appeared live in court knows how significant these numbers are.
Courthouses can be crowded, confusing, and aggressive. As a former attorney, I can tell you that I often left court feeling anything but 96% positive.
The data suggests that remote-access courtrooms should be given more careful consideration.
Why remote access is a good idea for Californians
Given the phenomenal success rate among the people who actually used remote courtroom services, it seems obvious that the program was a success for litigants and court personnel alike.
Let’s take a look at some of the other reasons why remote-access courtrooms are a good idea in California and beyond.
Expanded access to the justice system
Perhaps the greatest thing about remote access courtrooms is that they broaden the access that real people have to justice.
In an ideal world, the justice system would be equally accessible to all citizens.
Reality, however, is far from ideal. In many cases, it is nearly impossible for litigants to participate in this institution that they desperately need.
The lack of things like reliable transportation, child care, or the ability to take time off from work are real hurdles for many people seeking justice.
While remote litigants still might wrestle with some of those issues, there is a big difference in the time commitment needed to travel to a courthouse and wait your turn than there is in showing up via computer from wherever else you may need to be.
For that reason alone, remote access legal proceedings should remain available long after the pandemic is a distant memory.
Reduced carbon footprint
Courtrooms in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Clara, and Orange Counties easily see tens of thousands of people flow through the courthouse doors every single day.
Imagine if none of those people had to get in a car to participate in the justice system.
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking. One of the other great “silver linings” of the pandemic was the dramatic drop in carbon pollution that happened when people suddenly stopped traveling to and from work.
Reduce case backlogs
Let’s face it: California courts are notoriously overburdened.
That’s not a judgment; it’s a simple reality. The state’s legal system serves nearly 40 million people.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many industry experts worried that case backlogs would increase exponentially. At first, it looked like those predictions were accurate.
But a funny thing happened when the remote access courtroom processes really got rolling: case clearance levels started to increase beyond pre-pandemic levels.
The most interesting thing about that is that this increased efficiency happened in the midst of a pandemic when remote access courtrooms were hastily thrown together to serve a public thrust into chaos.
Once courts had the ability to plan and strategize how remote access could and should work, the efficiencies were obvious. It’s quite possible this technology could continue to be a huge relief to many of California’s overburdened courts.
Of course, the abrupt switch to remote access legal proceedings during the pandemic wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were technical glitches, issues surrounding access to technology, and cybersecurity/attorney-client privilege concerns.
Nonetheless, the benefits of remote access, combined with the emerging data surrounding positive user experiences, basically mandate that California courts explore remote access courtrooms as a permanent fixture in the State’s legal infrastructure.
Fortunately, these issues are already being studied extensively.
Really smart people are looking at things like creating uniform technologies, deciding which types of proceedings are best-suited for remote access in the future, and ensuring that the technologies themselves don’t exclude certain portions of the population.
We don’t know exactly what the remote-access courtrooms of the future will look like, but we’re fairly certain they’ll be a good deal for Californians.
Remote hearings in 2024 and beyond
Courts in California have embraced remote technology for proceedings, conducting thousands of hearings daily, saving time, expenses, and reducing trips to courthouses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ad Hoc Workgroup on Post-Pandemic Initiatives recommended expanding remote access, with SB 133 extending remote court hearings for most civil matters until Jan. 1, 2026, and SB 135 extending criminal proceedings until Jan. 1, 2025.
To address the diverse linguistic landscape of California, new legislation aims to enhance access to justice by clarifying and expanding the court interpreter workforce.
AB 1032 sets calendar limits on interpreter terms and advises local courts on retaining interpreters, while SB 101 funds a pilot program covering training, coursework, and exam fees to bolster interpreter numbers.
Furthermore, the state has authorized 26 new superior court judgeships (SB 75), pending legislative funding, to better serve court users and improve access to justice.