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If you’ve had even one ear in court-centric conversations over the past year, you know there have been several, pleasantly surprising steps forward within the long-debated, largely stagnant journey of increasing access to justice – mostly a result of the courts being catapulted into “virtual justice” and the rapid adoption of court technology to sustain urgent case hearings while in the throes of the pandemic.

Just to name a few of the “virtual court’s” highly sung praises:

  • Reduced default cases
  • Increased case participation and responsibility fulfillments
  • More personable interactions with Judges and litigants “feeling heard” after a case
  • Faster case turnaround
  • More manageable foot traffic in courthouses that are open

Now, as many states begin to slowly reopen, the courts face two crossroads:

  1. Should we, in good faith, revert back to the completely in-person court?
  2. What tools will we need to securely sustain hybrid operations (i.e., supporting both online and in-person cases)?

Crossroad One: Is the Traditional Court Still Serving Anyone Justice?

There are irrefutable benefits to providing in-person hearings for specific, highly vulnerable case types. Showing up to see an assailant receive their sentencing, to emotionally connect with a jury on a high-stakes case, or to see the support of your loved ones and community sitting in the benches behind you are human elements of the court that cannot be lost. There are also more drawn-out proceedings, lasting months, that are too complex and high-volume in attendance to be upheld by the internet.

But for most cases, such as traffic incidents, landlord-tenant disputes, misdemeanors and even divorce mediations, the in-person court does not do the case, citizens or the legal counsel any justice.

Requiring people to take time off work for court, afford travel and childcare, and entertain hostile environments between case parties is not only an antiquated process, but provides backbone support for one of the justice system’s most battled strongholds: access to justice. As illustrated in this recent bulletin from the Joint Technology Committee, the walls come down when people are able to manage their legal matters around working hours, caring for their children and from the comforts of home. Being able to respond to a questionnaire after putting their kids to bed, or taking a call from their attorney while on a lunch break, gives litigants the opportunity to rise up to their responsibilities and close their case rather than default and dig themselves into a deeper hole. Online payment portals are another prime example of this: empowering people to make online payments, rather than commuting to the courthouse, standing in-line and hoping they have a check on-hand, means child support payments, tickets and others are easier to make and, therefore, more likely to be fulfilled.

The NCSC’s CIO Paul Embley and Consultant Diana Graski made another critical observation while chatting us through “Asking (and Answering) the Difficult Questions” on our ODR podcast series: the breathing-room buffer that an asynchronous, online environment supports, such as being able to walk away from an emotionally triggering allegation from the other party or being asked a difficult question, allows case participants to walk away, think clearly and respond more appropriately. In many ways, interacting online rather than in-person turns down the heat on an otherwise emotional case, and allows the participants to focus on the matters at-hand, such as asset divisions, negotiations and other determinants that keep cases moving along.

This point gives way to another beneficiary of virtual justice: the court itself. With these high-volume case types being handled online, foot traffic in the courthouse is yields to a more manageable capacity. In turn, Clerks, Court Managers and especially Judges have more time to focus on higher-level initiatives and the sensitive cases in their midst. The fluidity provides for a significantly more productive day, of course, but – more importantly – the court personnel have more space (literally and figuratively) to give each person and their case the necessary attention needed to make better informed, more compassionate decisions.

Crossroad Two: Should I Decide to Adopt a Hybrid Court Model, Where Would I Begin?

“…for continued, long-term success of remote courts, officials will need to address issues of cost, security and reliability,” reports this recent Route Fifty article concerning the Judicial system’s here-to-stay digital transformation.

And, truthfully, we couldn’t agree more.

When the pandemic abruptly closed courthouse doors, court technology providers, ourselves included, encouraged the justice system to quickly implement easy start-up, case-enabling technologies that simply allowed the courts to continue connecting with their communities and serving justice for pressing, critical cases.

But we’re no longer operating in red-alert mode, and it’s time to make more permanent decisions.

With so many options for court-facilitating tech, many IT personnel and court managers are wondering: what tools should I invest in to support my court’s virtual operations? In an April presentation at the Ohio Judicial Conference (OJC), ImageSoft Account Executive Kevin Kowalkowski spoke on the top three platforms we recommend prioritizing for building a crisis-resistant, virtual-friendly, immediate future:

  • Online Dispute Resolution (ODR): Comprehensive case management for mediators, negotiators, ADR experts and more that remotely connects mediators with claimants, defendants and legal counsel to provide unmatched case turnaround times and client convenience thanks to ODR’s asynchronous environment for secure video conferencing, instant messaging, secure document exchange, settlement building, notifications and reminders, payment options, KPI business analytics and more.
  • Digital Evidence Management (DEM): Blueprinted to support the secure file exchange, video playback and overall management of digital evidence, such as 9-1-1 audio calls, surveillance video, medical examiner reports, and, especially, cellphone dumps and otherwise large files. DEM is ideal for both the justice and insurance communities.
  • Electronic Signature Platforms: A low-barrier, low-code electronic signature platform that manages your signing documents and projects while seamlessly supporting eSigning for both internal (i.e., staff, HR, business agreements, etc.) and external (i.e., vendors, business partners, citizens, etc.) parties. In the case of TrueSign, “template libraries” are also available, which means highly used forms are only created once and then saved in a custom “library” for users to pull from and distribute whenever needed.

I Need More Info on Taking My Court from a Physical Place to a Virtual Space

For answers, information and trusted guidance on building your variation of a “virtual court” – whether in its entirety or as a hybrid model – feel free to reach out. We love to talk court tech so much that we always have real, personable, anything-but-robotic people available through webchat.