Successful Judicial Leaders Share Their Tips on Implementing a Hybrid Courtroom
As courtrooms around the country embrace a new hybrid reality, members of the judicial system are tasked with understanding how to use technology to create a secure, inclusive environment and increase access to justice. And as they scale to meet new digital transformation demands, judicial leaders have identified what’s worked for them — and what hasn’t — throughout the process.
These Zoom customers share their best practices, pointers, and insights around creating a modern courtroom:
Acquire the right hardware
When the Teton County Court System transformed its district courtroom to be pandemic-friendly, they updated more than just the ventilation systems. The courtroom also acquired a large touch-screen computer that looks like a TV.
“The TV benefits people who are appearing by video,” Lance Oviatt, court reporter, said. “We use it to show evidence or if a remote witness needs to appear.”
By strategically deploying hardware, judicial leaders can make a hybrid courtroom engaging and inclusive for all involved, and disseminate information effectively. Whether you deploy a Neat Board, Yealink RoomPanel, or Poly Studio X30 Video Bar, using the right hardware will allow you to weave in the audio and video sources necessary for a seamless experience.
Expect longer cases due to increased engagement
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) recently published a study that took a detailed look at remote hearings in state courts in Texas. Participating judges from eight counties recorded details of their work over a three-week period in April 2021, and during that time, 85% of their hearings were conducted remotely.
The study found that being able to connect remotely into a hearing makes the process more convenient for the parties involved, and therefore virtual hearings take longer. The length comes from increased engagement, as plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses can participate without huge disruptions to their day-to-day lives.
David Slayton, who served as the Administrative Director of the Texas Office of Court Administration before moving to NCSC as Vice President for Court Consulting Services, witnessed this increased participation firsthand in the Texas courts before he began studying it for the NCSC report. Back in early 2021, he reflected on what he was witnessing in the Lone Star state. “What we’ve seen in the [more than 25 virtual jury trials] we’ve had so far is that in every one of those, there’s been increased participation,” he said. “Usually, let’s say that a county has 40 percent of people show up for jury duty. With the virtual jury selection, we’ve seen that number actually increase, so, 60, 70, 80 percent participation.”
Identify a “technical bailiff”
When speaking to NCSC’s study, Slayton noted the findings reveal that “remote hearings are here to stay.” But to future-proof a flexible judicial process, “courts [need] to identify and address the technology issues related to these remote proceedings,” he said, highlighting one of the report’s recommendations to hire “technical bailiffs.”
A technical bailiff is basically an additional court staff member who’s responsible for setting up hearing links, scheduling parties, contacting attendees before the hearings, and addressing any technical issues that arise during remote hearings — so that judges don’t have to.
Maximize funding opportunities to address your needs
While many constituents have the tools they need to attend virtual hearings, digital access isn’t the same for all Americans. For a remote court to effectively increase access to justice for all, some citizens may need support with bridging the technology gap to attain the services they need.
To enable engagement while practicing social distancing, the Teton County Court System supplied certain attendees with loaner devices. “If somebody didn’t have a device or internet access, we had them come to the courthouse and they sat in the lobby downstairs and court deputies would give them an iPad to use our Wi-Fi,” Oviatt said. “We were the first court in Wyoming to do this; we bought our own tablet[s].”
While physical distancing initially sparked the need for these devices, Teton’s judicial system took the opportunity to embrace holistic digital transformation via grant funding. “Now we have iPads available, and we used some COVID funding to buy more,” Oviatt said. “The pandemic forced us to upgrade some of our technology that was old.”
Oviatt shared that approach with the Wyoming Supreme Court, which then sent two iPads to every court in Wyoming.
Embrace the flexibility
The right technology gives the judicial system something it’s never had before: flexibility. It empowers workers and citizens alike to engage in the judicial process from whatever location suits their needs, saving time as a result.
As Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens noted, “When there are several parties and attorneys involved and they may not be located in the same jurisdiction, there’s a lot of [remote] hearings we can do now to cut down cost and expense for litigants.”
The Massachusetts judiciary experienced the exact same thing. “One of the things that we found during the pandemic is people don’t necessarily have to come in in order to be served by the court system,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd of the Supreme Judicial Court told a legislative committee via Zoom.
Remote proceedings may even assist with things bigger than time and money, helping make the judicial process a little less stressful overall. A Texas judge featured in the NCSC study noted virtual court helps de-escalate tense situations, such as divorce court. The judge stated, “It is emotionally easier for the parties to get through a divorce if they are not in the same room. Divorces are still a drain, and participants even break down remotely, but it is easier to get through.”
Creating the court of tomorrow
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not the disruption courts wanted, but it is the disruption
courts needed,” the NCSC report stated. A hybrid courtroom model may be new terrain, but it’s attainable by remaining agile and relying on a partner that can help you embrace the change.
Judicial systems can use either Zoom or Zoom for Government, our IL4, FedRAMP, StateRAMP, and CJIS-authorized platform, to begin modernizing their courtroom. Both come with easy-to-use features that help improve courtroom experiences, increase access to justice, and elevate the public’s relationship with the law. Constituents get the services they need, while justices get to embrace efficient ways of working.
If you’re using our platform to set up your hybrid courtroom, check out our Future of Courts guide, which outlines key tips for using Zoom to build a courtroom experience designed for the future.