The judicial system has a unique mission – to administer justice fairly and efficiently. Achieving this mission during a global pandemic comes with a distinct set of challenges. in court planning. Courts nationwide are struggling to strike a balance between carrying out essential functions and protecting the health and safety of judges, staff, and all who enter the courthouse. The National Association for Court Management (NACM) is currently hosting a weekly podcast series where court managers share the challenges they are encountering and best practices that have led to some successes in conducting business during these difficult times. Read on to learn how courts are navigating these uncharted waters.
The Challenges. Some courts are struggling to provide information in a timely manner. Judges – many of whom are operating remotely – require information on proceedings and other essential duties. Staff – some of whom may be teleworking for the first time – require information about their job functions, whether to report to work, and ever-changing protocols and procedures. Jurors need to know whether they should report for duty. Litigants and attorneys need to know whether their cases will be heard on schedule and whether they need to appear in-person or via videoconference. Business partners located in a courthouse must be informed about changing procedures. Information is changing by the day – and sometimes by the hour – and some courts are challenged to disseminate the information quickly.
Best Practices. A communication plan should be established that clearly identifies how information will be provided both internally and externally during the crisis. During the Coronavirus crisis, some courts have been utilizing crisis communication software, such as Everbridge, which allows them to efficiently notify select groups of operational updates via phone, email, and text messaging. Attachments can be included in these communications. Senders have the ability to see who has received and opened messages so they can be sure everyone has the information they need.
Courts are also using other communication channels, such as employee intranet sites, websites, social media, and group emails to distribute information. Some litigants who have upcoming court proceedings have no known residence. To ensure that those individuals have the information they need about courthouse closure and rescheduling of proceedings, court administrators are posting notices on the exterior of their courthouses. It’s important to utilize multiple modes of communication to ensure that everyone is reached.
The Challenges. Many courts have found themselves in the position of having to support a fast deployment and high utilization of technology to a remote workforce. Some courts don’t have an adequate number of laptops with the necessary software and videoconferencing capabilities to support judges and employees who are teleworking. Courts are triaging to make sure the most critical needs are met. Only judicial officers and employees who have access to the necessary equipment can perform the work. Many employees are sitting idle because they don’t have the technology in place to perform their jobs – a tremendous inefficiency in these critical times.
Courts are also reporting a significant challenge in deploying necessary technology to employees who are telecommuting and getting those employees up and running on the necessary hardware and software. IT staff are now forced to deploy technology in remote locations, ensure the technology is operational, and support a remote workforce with widely varying abilities to set up and operate the technology in their homes.
Best Practices. It’s critical to have protocols in place that address the type of equipment that is needed to carry out each of the job functions and to prioritize which employees receive the available equipment. As a result of the pandemic, many court proceedings are being held via videoconference. Protocols must be in place for how the videoconferencing technology is used for those proceedings, such as who initiates the videoconference and how many participants must be on screen, as courts will likely have to defend legal challenges to these proceedings. Protocols must also address how the integrity of the record can be protected using videoconferencing.
A key best practice is to conduct regular training exercises before a crisis hits. Have judges hold certain proceedings via videoconference from their homes or other remote locations to test the technology. Work through any kinks that are encountered in the system. Establish regular telework days for your staff and instruct them to test their network access, log in to IT systems, download large files, and test communication systems. Have a feedback loop and IT assistance in place so that teleworkers have the support they need to work through any glitches. Ensure that any obstacles to productivity are ironed out. This will help court operations run as smoothly as possible once an emergency situation does arise.
Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan
The Challenges. Having a COOP plan in place helps to ensure that a court’s mission-critical operations can continue in the event of an emergency. Some courts are encountering significant operational challenges in identifying essential functions and carrying those out during this crisis period for the following reasons:
- The court never developed a comprehensive COOP plan. Some courts created partial plans and others have not created a plan at all.
- The court’s COOP plan has not been regularly updated to include current points of contact, changing technologies, etc.
- The court’s COOP plan addresses other emergency events, such as natural disasters, but does not address the court’s response to a pandemic.
Best Practices. The best time to develop a COOP plan is during a low-stress time when your court is not dealing with a crisis. The COOP plan is not static guidance – it changes and evolves over time to reflect the changing operations and needs of the court and changing threats. Some important topics to include as part of your COOP plan include telework, a communication plan, delegation/succession of authority, records management, technologies, and training exercises. COOP plans should be regularly tested by carrying out the following trainings:
- Tabletop exercises – conducting facilitated, discussion-based meetings that allow all stakeholders to simulate an emergency situation and brainstorm the appropriate response.
- Functional exercises – performing duties in response to a simulated threat. These exercises provide staff with the opportunity to test protocols, responsibilities, and technologies in a scenario-driven environment.
- Full-scale exercise – simulating an emergency situation and mobilizing the staff and equipment from multiple agencies and jurisdictions that would be utilized during an actual event.
The Coronavirus pandemic has created challenges on a scale never before seen by our nation’s courts. A tremendous amount of flexibility is required to respond to this changing threat. Together we can learn from this crisis. Once we emerge from these difficult times, we’ll apply the lessons learned from the Coronavirus and stand ready for any future challenges.