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What Have We Learned About Remote Court Proceedings?

by Kurt Schlauch / March 23, 2024

About two years ago, I wrote in this space about the limitations of remote court proceedingsA couple of recent experiences in court planning helped me realize how much and how quickly perspectives about remote court proceedings are changing.  I’ll get to those in a moment, but first a bit of background. 

The Pandemic and Remote Proceedings

I initially considered key questions about the future of remote proceedings at a time when businesses and organizations were beginning to resume in-person operations post-COVID. Since then, a limit on remote interactions may have been reached. 

For example, managers were implementing return-to-work processes for employees and working to develop policies. Similarly,  judges and court executives were addressing specific questions of court policy and procedure as they navigated the transition beyond the pandemic.  

For most courts, remote proceedings were necessary rather than an option during the pandemic. Regulations about gathering in public spaces and social distancing required that proceedings previously conducted in person be conducted remotely, at least temporarily. In many cases, proceedings were held via live videoconference. As a court planner, this led me to consider important questions about future space usage, such as whether the number of courtrooms would be affected.

By late 2022, some courts with whom we worked cited valid reasons for returning to in-person proceedings. Here are two I encountered most frequently.

Access to Technology

Providing fair and impartial justice is challenging enough, and technology introduces a new level of complexity. All parties need a minimum combination of hardware and software to participate. In addition, access to high-speed internet service is a must, along with the knowledge and skill to use the equipment and ensure connectivity. For various reasons (e.g., cost, geography, etc.), not all potential litigants possess the necessary combination of equipment and connectivity.

Organizational Resistance

No two organizations are alike, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some courts and judicial systems intended to make remote proceedings a focal point for the long term, while others resisted making this transition.  

One court we worked with conducted all arraignments/initial appearances remotely during the pandemic, but only for the limited time during which public spaces were closed due to broader government safety protocols. The judges and local bar emphasized the importance of conducting in-person arraignments. 

The judges preferred interacting with defendants face-to-face, and the bar emphasized the criticality of interacting with opposing counsel and potentially discussing (or even completing) plea deals. In this court, certain types of minor proceedings (e.g., traffic, some civil) will be conducted remotely in the future, but all criminal proceedings will be conducted in person.

Post-Pandemic Remote Proceedings

My recent work on several court planning projects provided up-to-date feedback about remote proceedings from judges and court managers. With additional time to reflect on return-to-work policies and further establish a “new normal” for each organization, the focus may be shifting from the limitations of remote proceedings to their potential long-term benefits. Two areas are most often mentioned as reasons courts plan to continue conducting some proceedings remotely:

Time Savings

One of the most important perceived benefits of remote proceedings is the savings of time and reduced travel costs for litigants, attorneys, judges, and court staff. In rural areas where the nearest courthouse may be a sizable distance away, participants can save money directly on gas, parking, bus/train fare, childcare, food, and lost wages. 

They also save on the opportunity cost of commuting to the courthouse and waiting for a case to be called. Even in economically disadvantaged areas, the limitations of access to technology can be partly addressed by expanding free internet service and using “Zoom rooms” in courthouses and other public places. For example, a judge in a small rural community recently asked our design team to consider remote proceedings, Zoom rooms, and virtual jury selection as we prepare a program of requirements for a new courthouse.

Space Reduction

One challenging aspect of almost every current courthouse construction project is the impact of inflation. Materials and labor costs continue to increase, so construction costs continue to escalate, and project budgets are strained and often exceeded. Any opportunity to reduce the size and/or quantity of courtrooms, hearing rooms, and other large spaces merits consideration in this environment. 

Remote court proceedings provide this opportunity by helping to eliminate or shrink courtroom and hearing room spaces and thus reduce overall square footage. In a recent space planning session, representatives of an organization that maintains an inventory of hearing rooms indicated their organization had transitioned to fully remote proceedings. This will enable the organization to release a hearing room to a court housed in the same building. The court needs additional space for a mediation program, which will, in turn, help to reduce courtroom utilization. This was truly a win-win!

Final Thoughts

As the above examples illustrate, the use of remote court proceedings is not diminishing as we move farther away from the pandemic. Delivering justice efficiently to residents and building courthouses during an inflationary climate support this notion. 

Of course, there will always be limits to the use of remote court proceedings, as it raises important Constitutional issues about equality, the right to confront accusers, and the right to a trial by one’s peers. But where those limits are set is unique to each court's needs and provides a tool for courts to most effectively accomplish their mission.

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Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Kurt Schlauch

Kurt Schlauch

Kurt is a lead consultant and project manager with Fentress. He specializes in applying quantitative models to assess facilities and support organizational resource decisions. His personal interests include playing and coaching sports, skiing, and traveling with his wife and two children.