Remote court hearings take about one-third (34%) longer than in-person hearings, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) on the impact of remote hearings on courts and court users.
In addition to hearing length, NCSC shared several key findings relating to the pros and cons of remote hearings, its impact on judicial well-being, and recommendations for the future of remote proceedings.
The study used data from over 12 months and 1.25 million minutes of judicial data. Eight Texas jurisdictions and 52 judges tracked their judicial time and provided qualitative data on the benefits and disadvantages of remote hearings. Throughout the study, 85% of hearings were held remotely.
Why do remote hearings take longer?
According to the study, judges report that hearings take longer because of technical issues, lack of preparation by parties, fewer default judgments due to the accessibility of attending hearings remotely, and the increased numbers of parties in hearings.
Technical difficulties, including trouble logging onto video-conferencing platforms, connectivity problems related to limited bandwidth, and difficulty sharing screens or uploading documents and exhibits, were the chief concerns of those surveyed.
Anecdotally, judges said that resolving these issues falls onto court staff who aren’t trained to address them, adding stress and time to the proceeding.
Remote hearings benefit and challenge access to justice
Remote hearings are more accessible for people who face common logistical hurdles. Removing the barriers of transportation, finding childcare, and taking time off work make attendance easier for rural litigants, families, and lower-income individuals.
Additionally, remote hearings can reduce emotional stress and safety concerns for those involved in cases like divorce or abuse.
The NCSC report mentions that when parties can fully participate in court, and judges can thoroughly explain the process, court users perceive the fairness of the procedures more positively. This may lead to fewer post-judgment disputes.
Conversely, the “digital divide,” referring to those without consistent access to technology or without the knowledge needed to operate that technology, continues to pose problems to remote hearings.
Non-English speakers and those who are hearing-impaired may also struggle with a lack of effective translators available through remote court platforms.
The future of remote hearings
Many jurisdictions, court leaders, attorneys, and even court users have expressed the desire to continue remote hearings post-pandemic. The NCSC shared recommendations to improve remote interactions going forward, many of which offer ways to address technical difficulties proactively.
According to an NCSC press release, David Slayton, former Texas state court administrator and NCSC vice president for Court Consulting Services, suggests that courts can reduce the length of hearings by hiring “technology bailiffs,” who can prepare participants for their remote hearings and handle technology glitches when they occur.
Other recommendations include guidelines for which hearings should be conducted remotely and in person, improving the use of translators, and encouraging judges to take breaks to prevent “Zoom fatigue” and improve judicial well-being.
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