There’s little doubt we’ve learned, by necessity, that courts can and should be more accessible. During the great experiment forced upon us by the pandemic, we learned courts, previously loathe to change from traditional in-person proceedings, can hold court in virtual settings.

Judges, attorneys and court personnel now appreciate the option. So do litigants. At least until they try to access online platforms.

In Canada, the National Self-Represented Litigant Project (NSRLP) reviewed pandemic-era data that suggests there’s quite a bit of work and study that needs to be done relating to equal access to virtual courts. Indeed, of self-represented litigants questioned by NSLRP, 89% were initially interested in participating in virtual hearings. But afterward, 62% reported a negative experience.

“[W]hile the option of virtual hearings appealed to many litigants, the reality of participating in online hearings was very different,” Jennifer Leitch, NSRLP’s executive director, wrote in an article for the Canadian law blog, Slaw. Similarly, Leitch noted that self-represented litigants were sharing mixed feelings about virtual proceedings. “[S]ome expressed that the move to a virtual setting made things easier for them, but many others expressed stress and frustration, and the feeling that the move to virtual hearings had lessened, rather than increased, their practical access to justice.”

I had a chance to speak about the user experience with Leitch and Danielle Hirsch, a court management consultant with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), during an episode of Talk Justice.

Despite the concern about user experience, Hirsch and Leitch say the solution isn’t a step back from virtual settings. Instead, more study and development of better, more equitable approaches to in-person and remote proceedings needs to be part of new and updated processes. This includes taking time to hear from the end users and the ones directly affected by proceedings.

“This is an opportunity to think about all the different ways in which people can participate in different parts of the legal system,” Leitch said. “So whether it’s an order for protection, or it’s paying fines, or it’s dealing with particular types of matters—it’s thinking about not just the tech side of it, but also the process side of it, and how that might need to look different in a virtual world, keeping in mind things like procedural fairness and due process.”  

Hirsch, who is a co-host of the NCSC’s Tiny Chats series on access-to-justice issues, added that courts shouldn’t just shift processes online and instead should look for creative ways to improve the justice system both in person and online. She shared several examples of courts doing just this, including in Vermont, where courts have added “tech bailiffs” who assist the judges, lawyers and litigants in navigating virtual court.

“I think we are in this moment of great reckoning, and hopefully, we’re using this moment to do the research and the thinking about how to make sure we’re doing things really thoughtfully and purposefully,” Hirsch said.

Listen to the episode: Reimagining Virtual Court to Improve User Experience

Also see: Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast: Reimagining Virtual Court to Improve User Experience