Courts embracing video in wake of coronavirus pandemic

With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.

Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.

There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.

Coronavirus and the legal system in Massachusetts

Like almost every law professor in the country, I will be teaching from home for the next several weeks. It’s been a quick adjustment to become competent in online learning platforms, but we’ll make it work. Someone recently pointed out that Gen Xers like me are mentally prepared for something like this, having grown up in the waning years of the Cold War. My millennial students get props for taking all of this is stride as well. In the meantime, blogging may be a bit lighter than normal as I juggle work and family from home.

Last night, the governor of Massachusetts shut down all K-12 schools, and most restaurants and bars, until April 7. The state courts are following suit with their own precautions, trying to thread the needle between providing access to justice and protecting the larger needs of the community. The trial courts have announced a triage plan, effective this Wednesday, that will rely heavily on videoconferencing and staggered schedules. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) entered two additional orders, one postponing all new jury trials until at least mid-April, and the other limiting access to state court facilities for anyone who is likely exposed to or carrying COVID-19.

We are in the thick of social distancing now, and these measures all make sense. It will be interesting to see how much videoconferencing and online communication with the courts is retained once things return to normal.

 

 

U.S. Supreme Court closes in response to coronavirus threat

SCOTUSBlog reports:

Shortly after the White House and Congress announced that they would close to the public due to increasing concern over the coronavirus, the Supreme Court this afternoon followed suit. In a brief notice posted on the court’s website, the court announced that it would close to the public as of 4:30 p.m. today and would remain closed “until further notice.” However, the court indicated that its building would “remain open for official business” and that filing deadlines would not be extended.

The closure comes during what would normally be a relatively quiet period at the court: The justices wrapped up their February argument session last week and are not scheduled to hear oral arguments again until March 23. There has been no word from the court on whether the March argument session will take place as scheduled and, if so, whether members of the public will be admitted to watch the argument. Yesterday the public health department in Washington, D.C., recommended that “non-essential” gatherings of more than a thousand people be canceled as one way to fight the spread of the virus. The courtroom seats approximately 400 people.

The notice announcing the closure indicated that the Supreme Court’s building was being closed to the public because of “concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees.” Two of the justices are in their eighties: Justice Stephen Breyer is 81, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week. Justice Clarence Thomas is 71, while three more justices are in their sixties: Justice Samuel Alito is 69, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor are both 65.

Gabe Roth, the transparency advocate from Fix the Court, sees this as another argument for livestreaming. He sent out the following press release this afternoon:

Given the crowds that often gather in and around the Supreme Court, not to mention the advanced age of several of the justices, it’s the right call to close the building to the public until further notice.
That said, if this state of affairs continues through March 23 – the next time the justices hear arguments – the Court should at a minimum permit the public to listen to a livestream of argument audio from its website.
We believe the Court already has this capacity, as it streamed a Justice Scalia memorial service in Nov. 2016, and any technological gaps could be filled in by the nearby D.C. Circuit, which since Sept. 2018 has offered live online audio for all of its hearings.
Live audio is the smartest way to balance the now-competing concerns of public safety and public access.

Japan: a land of many courts and relatively few judges

The Japan Times has an interesting article on the relatively small number of formal judges in that country, given its large number of courts. Japan has over 1,000 courts within its judicial hierarchy, but fewer than 4,000 total judges. And many of those judges have mostly administrative, as oppossed to courtroom, roles. That poses an challenging question for a country which works to take many cases to trial: how are there enough judges to hold all the trials guaranteed under the law?

The answer lies in a combination of (1) a broad network of judicial assistants, many of whom serve as shadow judges; and (2) resolving cases short of a full-blown trial. As the article explains:

How do they manage it? They get a lot of help; there are approximately 10,000 judicial clerks (shokikan) who play a key role in case management and documentation. Those with plenty of experience might well be called “magistrates” in that they effectively run some proceedings, such as bankruptcy and enforcement matters, where the need for formal judicial determinations of fact or law is limited. Some even end up as summary court judges.

In some family and civil proceedings, lawyers are also used as part-time “judges” (though they are not referred to by that term). Family and civil courts also rely on thousands of part-time conciliators from the neighboring community (including members of the local bar association) to help disputing parties arrive at mediated settlements. District courts also host labor tribunals that resolve labor cases using a mixed panel of a real judge and representatives of both sides of the employment relationship.

Still, most these proceedings are not “trials,” the right to which is supposedly guaranteed by Article 32 of the Constitution. In English, this bit of the charter appears to guarantee “the right of access to the courts,” but in Japanese it actually refers to “the right to a trial in a court.” That many cases are not actually trials is convenient because it means they can be resolved in closed proceedings (since constitutionally only “trials” must be conducted in open court) with fewer due-process protections.

Even when a case is or becomes a full-blown trial, it is not uncommon to hear lawyers complaining about judges cutting corners in civil cases to get them off their docket. This can often involve pressuring parties to settle. Some may be tempted to attribute this to cultural factors, but settlement is also just easier for judges — they don’t have to write a judgment or worry about being overturned on appeal.

The astute reader will identify many similarities to the current state of the American civil justice system, for better or for worse.

A discouraging survey on lack of confidence in the Kenyan courts

A new study reveals that nearly half of Kenyans seek to resolve their legal disputes outside of court, either through informal means or by not pursuing a claim at all. The reasons are discouraging but unsurprising:

The top reason given for inaction was the belief that acting would not help, a view that was held by a third of the respondents.

The second most frequent rationale was that the other party was more powerful (20 per cent) than the complainant. Three in 10 Kenyans from the lowest income group say they did nothing because the other party was more powerful compared to one in 10 people in the highest income group. The numbers imply that the justice system is not seen as an equalising force by a sizable part of the population and that the experiences of those who sought legal services differed depending on income levels.

The study also found that 2 out of 3 Kenyans believe their court system generally protects the interests of the rich and powerful above all others, and only 1 in 3 felt that they can rely on the courts for fair justice.

Access to justice was hindered in other ways as well. Nearly 1 in 5 Kenyans said that they have no idea how to even initiate a legal claim. And those can file a claim may have to wait an eternity for resolution, since 1 in every 6 cases currently pending in the Kenyan courts is more than ten years old.

These problems are not unique to Kenya, of course. Every court system faces the considerable challenge of providing equal justice in a society that is inherently unequal. But the survey nevertheless brings those challenges into stark relief once more.

Positive changes in the Michigan state courts

The Michigan courts recently announced two initiatives designed to improve the experience of being in court for their users. The Third Circuit Court in Detroit opened new lactation rooms in four different buildings to improve access for nursing mothers. And in Dearborn, a local judge has opened a veterans court to provide help to veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems who would otherwise face jail time.