Since 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) has prioritized remote access to the court system, including remote appearances.
Remote appearances allow parties and attorneys to access the justice system without multiple trips to the courthouse, while allowing courts to streamline their court calls.
Meaningful access to lawyers and the justice system without time-consuming trips to law offices or the courthouse is especially important in rural areas like southern Illinois’ First Judicial Circuit, where public transportation and ridesharing options are practically non-existent.
In 2019, the ATJ Commission began conversations with partners at the First Judicial Circuit and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid about a pilot program that would connect low-income residents with legal services and their county’s courthouse.
The two-year pilot, which was launched this year, permits litigants to appear in court remotely from a smartphone or other device while connecting attorneys in Land of Lincoln’s Southern Regional Office to clients in counties and courthouses that are a significant distance away.
We spoke to Justice Mary K. Rochford, Chair of the ATJ Commission, Chief Judge William J. Thurston of the First Judicial Circuit, and Diane M. Goffinet, Managing Attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, about why the pilot program was needed, how it’s going, and what’s next.
Why was it important to launch this program in the First Judicial Circuit?
(Thurston) The First Judicial Circuit includes nine of the southern-most, rural counties in Illinois. Travel for in-person appearances from Land of Lincoln attorneys to each of the nine counties was burdensome, as the travel time was, in most instances, much greater than the time the matter took in court.
Eliminating travel through remote appearance has allowed Land of Lincoln attorneys to take on additional cases, which is helping them serve our circuit in a greater way.
The funding provided through the pilot project was instrumental in creating the opportunity for each courthouse to provide remote appearances.
How have remote appearances enabled Land of Lincoln to expand its reach?
(Goffinet) Remote appearances have allowed our attorneys to appear in multiple courthouses in the same day, which has been difficult in the past due to the size of our service territory.
It has also allowed us to have additional time in the office, which is used for interviewing new clients, working on cases, etc.
For example, a case management conference in Saline County used to be a 2.5-hour affair, and now it normally takes approximately 15 minutes, which gives us a tremendous amount of “found time” that we didn’t have before.
What technology is used in the pilot program?
(Rochford) We asked our partners to identify what they needed in order to facilitate remote appearances. The technology that the ATJ Commission has been able to fund includes ethernet cabling, monitors, webcams, speakers, microphones, headsets, and rolling carts.
Do you think the quality of legal services is impacted in a remote setting?
(Goffinet) I don’t think that [the quality] has been [negatively impacted]. It’s been rare that we have a contested hearing remotely, so most cases are status hearings, simple motions, default settings, etc., which can be done remotely with no adverse effect on the case.
With the advent of e-filing, proposed orders and judgments must be filed in advance of the hearing anyway, so a remote setting doesn’t cause any delay to the signing of the orders as they are already pre-filed for the judge to review and sign.
Which case types or proceedings have been easiest to handle remotely?
(Thurston) The cases that have been easiest to handle remotely have been status hearings on dissolutions, cases relating to petitions for expungement/sealing of records, and numerous other non-evidentiary cases.
As far as the hybrid court model, there has been success in some counties, and it is still developing in the circuit.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to remote appearances?
(Goffinet) Some of our clients aren’t familiar with remote technology such as Zoom, or they are afraid of how it works. To help alleviate these fears, we will do practice Zoom meetings with our clients so they are comfortable with the process.
For clients who don’t have the technology, some courts allow the client to appear in person, while we appear remotely. That is something that would only be done in status hearings. If there will be testimony, the attorneys would rather be in the same space as their clients.
Do you anticipate that remote appearances will continue after the pilot?
(Thurston) Utilizing ATJ Commission grant funding, all courthouses within the nine counties of the First Circuit are now at least minimally equipped for remote appearances.
Necessary technology upgrades will be made, as both remote and hybrid model appearances will continue to be offered in all nine counties, along with in-person appearances when safe to do so.
What are the next steps?
(Rochford) The AOIC will be collecting and analyzing the [qualitative and quantitative] data provided by the First Judicial Circuit and Land of Lincoln. We hope to release the results soon after the end of the pilot [July 31, 2023].
Based on the results and lessons learned from this pilot, we hope to expand the program to other circuits in the state.
Are there any other observations you would like to share?
(Thurston) Although there is a lot more work to be done in the First Judicial Circuit regarding remote appearances, and especially as it pertains to the hybrid court model, much of the groundwork began through the funding of the ATJ Commission.
Our circuit will build on what is working and create greater opportunities utilizing technology, with the goal of better serving court patrons and the legal community.
However, one disturbing trend that must be addressed and reversed is a lack of decorum or solemnity demonstrated by a small number of litigants. Remote appearances are still court proceedings and must be conducted in compliance with established rules.
(Goffinet) I think it is a tremendous time-saver for all parties involved in a case. It certainly allows us to be much more efficient with our time.
We sometimes drive long distances to appear at a hearing and that time is now available for preparation and serving other clients.
Having full access through technology allows us to retrieve information for a judge right when it is asked for. With time, we believe any initial bumps will be smoothed out and it will continue to improve for everyone overall.
(Rochford): We are extremely grateful for the judges and legal aid lawyers who have partnered with us to launch this pilot program. Their thoughtfulness and hard work have helped make this pilot possible, and we look forward to learning how remote appearances will impact access to justice in this part of the state.
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