By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
According to a recently announced National Center for State Courts (NCSC) exploratory study of Texas courts, remote court proceedings often take longer than in-person hearings, but they provide increased access to justice as litigants can more easily attend and participate in hearings. No surprises there.
The 12-month study, released in December 2021, analyzed 1.25 million minutes of judicial data, as well as focus group feedback from judges and court leaders in eight counties across Texas. The study largely confirms what judges across state courts nationally have anecdotally shared about remote hearings before and, particularly, during the pandemic.
Judges in the study were asked whether certain types of cases or types of hearings are more or less suited for remote hearings. The Texas judges agreed that – in most instances - the type of case is less relevant than the type of hearing: “Generally speaking, remote hearings function most effectively with hearings that are short in nature and limited in scope, such as setting trial dates, status hearings, permanency hearings, discovery hearings, motions hearings of various types, self-represented divorce dockets (especially when parties have completed agreements), and non-evidentiary or non-witness cases. Additionally, in terms of case types that work well for remote dockets, judges indicated the type of matters that affect people’s ability to get on with their lives, such as many probate proceedings, child protective services, and other family law cases, work well.”
The Illinois Supreme Court recognized the considerable benefit of remote proceedings to court participants early in the pandemic. In a letter to the Illinois Judiciary back in mid-2021, Chief Justice Anne M. Burke stated: “While the effects of the pandemic are beginning to recede, remote proceedings will not.”
Chief Justice Burke went on to state that the Supreme Court’s commitment to remote hearings, reflected in Supreme Court Rules 45
and other documents created during the pandemic, should not be viewed as merely temporary COVID-induced measures. Remote hearings not only facilitate access to self-represented litigants, they are also extremely beneficial for attorneys and other court participants juggling multiple proceedings on their daily schedules. Chief Justice Burke noted that offering the option of remote proceedings better serves the needs of all court users and should be an essential part of court business.
To this end, the Illinois Judicial Conference recently announced
the formation of a Remote Proceedings Task Force (Task Force). The Task Force is charged with evaluating the current state of remote proceedings in Illinois Courts and connecting best practices for remote hearings from across the state.
The Task Force is composed of circuit judges, trial court administrators, circuit clerks, and practicing attorneys, each bringing a unique and essential point of view. The Task Force is expected to make recommendations to the Supreme Court about potential rule and policy changes and trainings to further the use of virtual methods for conducting court business. While this work is going on, courts across the state will continue to provide remote appearances and generate additional feedback and lessons learned.
To ensure each courthouse across the state has the necessary technology to conduct remote proceedings, the AOIC is currently distributing grant funding to every circuit in the state to purchase updated and upgraded technology. This program is intended to help courts accommodate proceedings that are entirely remote or a mix of participants appearing in the courthouse and participants appearing by videoconference (e.g., Zoom) or by telephone.
While initially resistant to remote proceedings, much of the practicing bar has embraced and efficiencies and recognized the senselessness of parties traveling to the courthouse for proceedings such as a five-minute status call. Some attorneys are even calling for remote proceedings to be the default for civil litigation. However, other attorneys would prefer that courts to go back to operating in-person. That is why the work of the Remote Proceedings Task Force is so important. It will gather the varying viewpoints of justice partners to find a “sweet spot” for the court system.
COVID-19 was the catalyst for courts to begin fully utilizing remote proceedings, but other events have illustrated its additional benefits. Some rural counties were recently able to switch to all remote proceedings during winter storms in February. This kind of flexibility shows a court system that is responsive to court user needs – a hallmark of the goals pursued by the Illinois Judicial Conference.
Remote proceedings are not the wave of the future. They are our present, and Illinois Courts are increasingly capable of the flexibility needed to accommodate such requests from attorneys and litigants. We look forward to the Task Force’s recommendations on continued enhancement of this public service.