Photo credit: iStock/Maria Symchych-Navrotska

To evaluate the pros and cons of virtual court hearings that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a non-profit organization focused on improving judicial administration in the United States and around the world, conducted interviews with 18 judges who oversee child welfare cases in the United States. The findings of their research were published in an article from June 2021, “Study of Virtual Child Welfare Hearings Impressions from Judicial Interviews”. The interviews reveal five distinct advantages of virtual hearings.

  • First, nearly all of the judges reported an increase in the attendance of parents at virtual hearings. Judges attribute this difference to the reduced need to travel and take time off work.
  • In addition to parents, virtual proceedings offer greater access for individuals who support children throughout these cases, like caregivers and other relatives. It also provides an opportunity to involve medical professionals and therapists who would not otherwise have the time to travel to a courthouse during their workday.
  • Another reported benefit is an increase in the productivity of legal professionals like attorneys and caseworkers: “Judges observed that virtual hearings allowed attorneys to appear in courts in multiple counties on the same day…[and that] attorneys were as well or even better prepared for virtual hearings”. The same was reported of caseworkers and court appointed special advocates (CASA). 
  • Judges also expressed that virtual hearings contribute to the efficiency of courts by providing a more rigid structure for their operation through time-certain scheduling: “We used to have 15 cases set at one time (in the courthouse)… but now [with virtual hearings] each hearing is set for a specific time and duration”.
  • Finally, judges reported that virtual methods improved the quality of hearings: “[Judges] found advantages to virtual trials, including the ability to see witnesses’ faces up close on camera and observe how other participants react to testimony”. 

There were also some reported drawbacks to virtual proceedings that represent potentially significant impediments to administering fair and effective hearings:

  • With regard to virtual testimony, judges encountered logistical challenges: “Judges pointed out that it is more difficult to assess witness credibility, recognize witness coaching, or detect use of notes in virtual hearings”. 
  • Other judges believe that virtual methods do not adequately reflect the seriousness of the matters at hand. 

Despite these concerns, the shift to virtual proceedings was regarded by the vast majority of judges as a positive development. One judge captured this sentiment, saying, “I think that it’s pushed us along the technology curve faster…and that’s probably a good thing. There are a lot of benefits that we are going to be able to glean from this. Anybody who has a challenge or barrier getting to court – this will help them”. Reflecting this spirit, judges were unanimously in favor of, at the very least, keeping virtual hearings as an option for some cases in a post-pandemic United States. 

While these examples are from a small and specific subsection of courts in the United States, the advantages reveal some underlying principles that are relevant to all court settings. These can be thought of as: increased accessibility to hearings, increased productivity of legal professionals, increased efficiency of court operations, and improved quality of testimony. If the findings of the NCSC research are generalizable, courts around the world can expect to enjoy these advantages. 

Signed by Anthony Ramazani, Millennium Partners intern