Courts across the nation are striving to catch up on modernization and new technology, but first, they may need a strategic plan to do so
About three years after the start of the pandemic, courtrooms are just now beginning to settle into their new normal. There remains a disparity, however, in what this new normal looks like in courtrooms across the country, driven by differing budgets, technological constraints, and views on the applicability of remote work.
So if courtrooms are looking to innovate, where should they begin? Experts at the National Center for State Courts say based on their conversations, the answer lies not with a universal piece of technology, but rather with refining courtroom technology processes and adopting technology that fits a court’s specific needs.
Tech adoption, but smartly
Over the past three years, courtrooms have made a lot of strides in adopting virtual court technologies, notes Zach Zarnow, Principal Court Management Consultant with the National Center for State Courts. It’s just that those gains are often coming from different starting points.
“The playing field is not level,” Zarnow says. “There is so much difference across the country, as some courts that were better resourced are able to use more stuff, other courts that are less resourced have been creative and innovative by borrowing off-the-shelf technology.”
As a result, even assessing how courts adopted technology since the pandemic can be tricky. Lindsay Hafford, Senior Court Management Consultant for the National Center for State Courts, points to how many courts adopted some form of video conferencing platform, such as Zoom, out of necessity in order to hold remote hearings. That could be considered a step forward in technology adoption — but now, many courtrooms are struggling to integrate video conferencing with what was already installed in courtrooms, such as digital evidence presentation and court recording technologies.
“When they added on some of those pandemic-related technologies in order to do remote or hybrid court, those things don’t always talk to each other, so we’ve got courts that are struggling with that,” Hafford explains. “What they thought would be a temporary solution is left on top of the hard-wired, integrated solution that’s in the room, which it’s still just very challenging to work with.”
As a result, Zarnow and Hafford say they don’t measure technology innovation by type of technology adopted, but rather by how well the court is adopting processes to fit its needs. “There isn’t one piece of technology you must have,” Zarnow says. “There are outcomes, goals, and priorities that you set as an institution and that you’re required to set by the law that you then work backwards from to figure out which pieces will make that happen.”
For example, there have been plenty of online dispute resolution projects that have been undertaken in recent years due to pandemic pressures, he says, but they largely failed “because they paid no mind to what the process was, figured this is now going to be online and will therefore just magically be better, and it didn’t work.” In other words, just because a technology is innovative doesn’t mean its application is innovative.
“To me, the most forward-thinking [courts] are the ones that start from basic principles and don’t get wooed by the promise of a technology fix-it-all,” Zarnow explains. “Rather they should start with, what are we trying to do? How are we going to do it? And let the tests be thoughtful. And that is actually innovative.”
The need for a plan
That means, when looking to undertake a court innovation project, the first stop may be not what technology to implement, but rather what problems a court has to solve and whether it has the personnel on staff to solve those problems. Particularly after the past three years, a few easy first questions to ask are, what have we adopted already that’s working, what’s not working, and who do we have that would know?
Hafford notes that some court systems, like in Arizona and Minnesota, have put together committees to provide recommendations for how adopted virtual court technologies can be implemented in the future. Other states such as Texas are exploring possibilities for virtual jury selection, Zarnow adds. Yet, all of these plans have something in common: a desire to start by solving simple problems and pick up easy wins.
“You see these courts that are going for the typically higher volume, lower complexity types of cases or proceedings that could be more readily done remotely as a first option,” Hafford says. “And I think that’s where our mind goes, that’s an easy kind of win or an easy entry point into this, to maintaining the remote appearance option or requirement even for those types of proceedings.”
Sometimes, improving the user experience doesn’t even need to happen in the courtroom itself. Hafford adds that one of the major issues that arose with widespread video conferencing usage was simply notifying parties relevant details before the event — Zoom links, who to contact with connection issues, processes if there’s a drop in connection, and the like.
“I mean pre-pandemic, I think I can say most courts in the country weren’t always capturing email addresses for folks. Their systems may not have even had the field to capture the email address,” Hafford says. “So you have to talk about doing programming in your clerks’ filing system, so you can capture that email address. When you decide that you’re going to send out e-notifications with a link to access that Zoom proceeding for your official court event, that takes a lot of planning and a lot of groundwork that has to be laid.”
That planning is also crucial because court cases have little margin for error. What happens, for instance, if a defendant’s connection drops, and default judgment is issued before they can reconnect? “We’ve got some pretty basic issues that are very critical to the operation of a court proceeding: people in the room not being able to see and hear people that are appearing remotely in a hybrid situation — we can’t have court like that,” Hafford adds.
For any virtual court technology and innovation projects to really take off, in that case, planning around courtroom processes isn’t just a nice-to-have, but a must-have in order to achieve buy-in from all parties involved. “If those things don’t start to really gel, then I think that we’re going to see more judges say, I really just can’t risk this,” Hafford says. “And attorneys are going to be staying the same thing.”