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New report assesses citizens’ experiences with remote court hearings in civil cases

Oct 19, 2023

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nearly every aspect of life went virtual. Work meetings, elementary school, therapy sessions, dance parties and happy hours were all conducted via Zoom or other online video conferencing tools. Legal court proceedings were no exception.

Now, just like many employers are deciding whether to allow remote work to continue, states and courts across the country are deciding whether the option to conduct remote proceedings should stay on the table.

Law students stand on steps outside IU Maurer School of Law students and Civil Justice Design Fellows assisted Victor Quintanilla in creating the report. Photo courtesy of Victor Quintanilla.

In the context of this shift, Victor D. Quintanilla, professor of law and Val Nolan Faculty Fellow in the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, set out to measure citizens’ experiences with remote court hearings and provide judges and other legal actors with data they need to make decisions about the future of online civil courts.

In one of the first reports of its kind since the pandemic, “Accessing Justice with Zoom: Experiences and Outcomes in Online Civil Courts,” Quintanilla and his team measured the impact of remote technologies on vulnerable individuals in civil cases like evictions, debt collection, small claims and family law – cases in which more than 90% of defendants are unrepresented. The report compares the experiences of unrepresented persons attending civil proceedings in person with those accessing court remotely.

“Sometimes there’s a sense that the civil justice system and legal process should be difficult to access for ordinary people, and you could imagine that some parties, especially in civil cases, might want to foist hassles and difficulties on the other side,” Quintanilla said. “But most courts are concerned with access to justice and truly don’t want people to fail to appear. In fact, we see courts moving in the direction of people-centered justice.”

While on its face, remote court proceedings may seem more convenient for defendants, Quintanilla said he was skeptical before conducting his research given the digital divide. Previous reports had shown disparities in technology between litigants and lawyers: most lawyers used laptops while most unrepresented persons logged on via phones. He was also concerned about unreliable internet access, as 740,000 Indiana residents – 10.8% of the state’s population – have no personal internet access.

“This is why it is important to conduct the research and gather empirical data from the people who experience these proceedings,” Quintanilla said.

The findings suggest that the benefits of remote proceedings vastly outweigh possible technical issues when it comes to citizens’ experiences and outcomes.

The report’s findings include:

  • Most unrepresented litigants who attended court remotely wished to do so in the future, while there was a decline in preference for participating in in-person proceedings once a person had done so.
  • Gaps in procedural justice between unrepresented plaintiffs and defendants narrowed during online hearings.
  • Unrepresented defendants who accessed court remotely reported higher satisfaction with case outcomes than those attending court in person.
  • Litigants more frequently encountered structural barriers, including employment, child care and transportation challenges when attending court in person, while less than 10% of people experienced technical issues during online hearings.
  • Unrepresented defendants reported greater stress within in-person proceedings than remote proceedings.

Quintanilla said that the preference for online court proceedings in these types of civil cases can be attributed not only to higher levels of convenience but also to lower levels of stress and social isolation for unrepresented defendants. This can lead to better outcomes, real and perceived. The report found that unrepresented litigants leave court more satisfied with their ultimate case outcomes after remote proceedings and, in eviction cases, agreements and settlements were more common in online civil courts.

Psychological barriers, such as stress and social exclusion, can hinder the ability of litigants to engage effectively with the court system, according to Quintanilla, leading to worse outcomes. Unrepresented defendants attending court in person reported significantly greater levels of social exclusion than unrepresented plaintiffs. In online hearings, the experience of defendants and plaintiffs did not differ.

In addition to removing some of the barriers to appearing in court, online proceedings can also provide services that defendants would not otherwise have access to. The authors of the report observed courts using Zoom breakout rooms to make legal aid and pro bono attorneys available to unrepresented persons for brief advice during their remote hearings. This can be especially beneficial to rural defendants who live in counties that are legal deserts where pro bono attorneys are not available.

This report, supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the American Bar Foundation, and created as a part of Quintanilla’s participation in the Schmidt Futures Innovation Fellowship Program, will be disseminated by the Indiana Coalition for Court Access in the hopes that it will establish a learning community for judges who can use the information to improve citizens’ experiences. Eventually, Quintanilla hopes the report will have an impact beyond Indiana.

“The idea is that we would be able to share the results of what we’ve done with courts through national networks that we work with, like the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association,” he said.

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Marah Yankey

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