For thousands of Hoosiers undergoing civil proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, remote hearings or “Zoom court” allowed them to attend safely and conveniently. Many Hoosiers used a smartphone to access their local justice system after the Indiana Supreme Court authorized remote technology for civil proceedings in early 2020.
As the pandemic wanes, judges and justices alike wonder if it was worth it and whether such proceedings should continue.
An analysis from researchers at Indiana University could serve as a “missing piece of the puzzle” as courts navigate a post-COVID world, according to Victor Quintanilla, who led the collaborative effort.
“Right now, courts are deciding what to do post-pandemic and what the new normal should look like. And a lot of courts are thinking about whether to allow the choice of remote hearings to continue,” Quintanilla said.
It might be tempting for judges and attorneys, with decades of practice in person and little time virtually, to go back without considering the potential benefits of remote courts, said Quintanilla, who teaches at the university’s Maurer School of Law and in its psychology department.
“I hope … we really think about the way in which these remote options can be meaningful forms of providing access and meeting people where they are,” Quintanilla said.
Quintanilla noted that the majority of people interacting with the legal system each year don’t have representation as their case winds through civil proceedings, such as evictions or small claims. In Indiana, plaintiffs with representation vary from 40% to 78%, depending on the case type, while defendants vary from 1% to 17%. The greatest disparity is in eviction proceedings, where only 1% of defendants have representation but 70% of plaintiffs do.
“We know that there (are) so many people in our civil justice systems who don’t have legal experience and they’re either representing themselves or they’re kind of finding their way,” Quintanilla said.
During the pandemic, court observers noticed that these same defendants were appearing in Zoom court using their smartphones — a stark contrast to the attorneys with laptop or desktop setups in staged backgrounds.
“We were really concerned about the potential asymmetries that might happen with some people having better technology than others,” Quintanilla said. “… That really motivated this study of wanting to understand the experiences and outcomes of ordinary, self-represented or unrepresented people.”
But contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, these Hoosiers preferred the virtual meeting method and reported higher levels of satisfaction with their judicial outcomes — as outlined in “Assessing Justice with Zoom: Experiences and Outcomes in Online Civil Courts.”
“It was very unambiguous: The convenience gains for ordinary people being able to kind of ‘remote in’ (to court) — as opposed to traveling to the court, getting child care set up, arranging their life — was very real,” Quintanilla said.
Zoom court opportunities
With support from the Indiana Supreme Court, the study analyzed 58 judges with high-volume dockets across 40 courts in 12 counties. Using their contact information, surveyors texted and emailed questions to thousands of Hoosiers in English and Spanish, netting roughly 2,000 responses.
The majority of Hoosiers in the sample, whose court proceedings were in 2022, attended in person, but roughly 30% had Zoom court, though a small number of courts used Webex.
Quintanilla said the remote option gave flexibility to those who needed it most — Hoosiers working multiple jobs, balancing child care, arranging for transportation and more. Rather than coordinating those factors and potentially waiting hours at a courthouse before their hearing began, defendants could join the courtroom virtually.
Those juggling multiple responsibilities might not prioritize a court appearance and skip because they have too much going on, Quintanilla said.
“Remote technology allows them to kind of show up in a way that they can, and it does take away some of that stress for them (while allowing) them to meet all of the demands that they have in life,” Quintanilla said.
The Hoosiers included in the study reported virtually the same outcomes in terms of winning or losing their cases but differed significantly when it came to their reported experiences. Those in Zoom court were much more satisfied than their peers, even though they started the experience anticipating a less favorable ending.
Unrepresented defendants, in particular, were more likely to report being satisfied with their outcome, which Quintanilla credited to “not having to go through the same kind of challenges and barriers” as in-person court proceedings.
But not all outcomes were equal. For evictions, in particular, virtual court proceedings were more likely to end in a settlement between parties.
Due to their virtual nature, Quintanilla said that legal advocates and housing mediators were freer to join a “breakout session,” or private videocall, during the longer Zoom court hearing. This legal advice was timelier and more relevant to the parties while allowing advocates to help more people by visiting multiple courts across the state in a shorter time frame.
In an in-person court proceeding, the advocate — who might be based outside the county — might miss the window of opportunity or might have to share advice too far ahead of hearing, which is then forgotten in the moment.
Implications moving forward
The study noted shortcomings for virtual courts, especially in a state where a significant number of residents don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet. Technological difficulties were reported in just under 10% of proceedings — often those Hoosiers who had to borrow someone’s phone to make a call, had limited data plans or needed to find another way to access the hearing.
“That was one of the hard pieces for us … this 10% were also the same 10% who were more likely to have to travel, arrange for child care, take time off work and face a number of other challenges to be present (physically),” Quintanilla said. “They’re the most at-risk for not showing up at all (for) in-person (hearings) … they had technological challenges, but they were still able to connect.”
“Technology bailiffs” could serve to ensure connectivity before a proceeding, and courts could consider other ways to help this group make their commitments. The collaboration has identified judges who are successfully implementing technology in their courtrooms and might have tips to share with others, Quintanilla said.
Quintanilla’s work falls under the Indiana University Equity Accelerator, a research organization that aims to create more equity learning and working environments. Part of Quintanilla’s focus, with his combined experience in both law and psychology, seeks to find a way to make systems more accessible and supportive for the average person.
“Our courts, traditionally, were designed for and by lawyers or people with legal training. And over time, over the last several decades, it’s become clear that you can’t expect people without counsel … to rise to the same level as those with legal training,” Quintanilla said. “That’s something that needs to change.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.