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.
This week saw the formal announcement of two new efforts to modernize state court systems through technological improvements. The Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative, in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, American Bar Association, state court administrators, and private tech companies, to “modernize key aspects of the nation’s civil legal system and make it more accessible to the public.” Among the projects are developing more online tools for litigants and the public; using artificial intelligence to understand common language legal questions; and expanding online dispute resolution.
Separately, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) released a new report entitled Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers. Among the report’s recommendations are:
- Ensure court information and services are accessible through smartphones and ensure up-to-date wayfinding.
- Allow court users to present photos, videos, and other information from their smartphones in court.
- Enable court users to appear by telephone or video conference.
- Facilitate easier scheduling of hearings using common digital calendar platforms.
- Allow online payment of fees and other costs.
- Create opportunities for users to access forms and other case-related information remotely and simplify the completion and filing of those forms, including electronic filing, and eliminate notarization requirements.
- Deliver automated court messaging about upcoming hearings or missed events and allow that messaging to help guide users through the process.
Substantively, both projects are directly responsive to an increasing number of self-represented litigants who desperately need help navigating the legal process. In the spirit of this blog, the projects also demonstrate how the courts can partner with organizations in their immediate environment to improve their outreach and service.