By Keith Ellery, Avenu Justice Solutions Leader
As we enter the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clearer than ever that COVID-19 will have long-lasting effects on our way of life. But the changes wrought by COVID-19 have proven especially challenging for America’s court system.
Across the country, COVID-19 is delaying jury trials and impeding access to justice. In some cases, positive COVID diagnoses have led to mistrials, further delaying and complicating the justice process. Between social distancing regulations, safety concerns and a rapid shift to remote work for government employees, courts are struggling to maintain the normal operating procedures that allow juries to convene.
But as the old adage goes, justice delayed is justice denied. Approximately 74% of roughly 631,000 people held in U.S. jails are still awaiting trial and conviction. Without a solution to the challenges posed by COVID-19, our court system can’t deliver justice to these and many other people.
Fortunately, digital court technology can help.
2020 was no stranger to digital technology. We’ve all experienced the widespread and rapid shift to video conferencing technology in our workplaces, churches and even homes. Digital and online services and portals have provided a lifeline for workplaces, organizations and families confronting disruption by COVID-19. And we can bring the same technological innovation to our justice system.
Digital court technology can range from an online system for managing juries to electronic filing capabilities and cloud-based document databases. All of these technologies have been around long before COVID-19, but they hadn’t yet found widespread Governments simply had other budgeting priorities than digitalizing the courts.
But COVID-19 has changed those priorities. Faced with widespread delays and disruptions of justice, courts must now view digitalization as an imperative, not an option. If governments want to overcome COVID-19’s impact on the court, they’ll have to digitize now.
Take jury selection and management as a case in point. One of the biggest hurdles facing local courts today is how difficult it is to assemble jurors in a socially distanced and safe way. In the past, you’d have 300 or so people show up at a time and gather in a small space to wait to be used during jury service. With COVID-19, most courts simply don’t have the physical capacity to provide socially distanced jury meetings for all these people.
As a result, people are simply refusing jury duty summons out of concerns for their personal safety. To compensate, some court officials are even turning to the extremely costly measure of leasing convention center space to meet social distancing requirements. But neither of these outcomes delivers a safe, streamlined and cost-efficient jury management solution.
Things look different with an online jury management portal. At Avenu, we just launched the Clearview Justice Portal that has a number of plug-ins, including a juror attendance plug-in. The portal empowers courts to communicate with and guide jurors through the process of their jury service in a completely contactless way. Jurors can be checked in and pre-assembled for jury service but stay socially distanced in their vehicles. A contactless jury management system like this could easily and quickly become part of the new normal as we continue to battle the coronavirus.
But digital jury management is just one example among many. The larger point is that the technologies are out there to digitize the court in almost every aspect, and a digitized court system circumnavigates the roadblocks and the dangers posed by COVID-19. We may even start to see virtual jury trials in the very near future, something previously unimaginable.
With digital technology solutions, we can prepare our court system for whatever disruptions the future of the coronavirus pandemic throws at us. As we face both new spikes in coronavirus cases heading into the new year and the prospect of a coronavirus mutation, making those preparations now could mean the difference between justice delivered or justice delayed and denied.
How the Norfolk Circuit Court Increased its Jury Response Rate from 36% to 80%.
Low jury response rates can be a drag on court operations and the administration of justice: cancelled trials; wasted time and money; frustrated judges, lawyers, parties, and witnesses.
These low jury response rates also punish the members of the public who do show up to meet their civic responsibilities. These responsible citizens often serve more frequently because of the citizens who simply shirk from their civic duties.
The citizens who do respond to a jury duty summons are not always reflective of the population leading to jury pools that do not accurately represent the demographics of the community.
The Circuit Court of the City of Norfolk, Virginia faced all of these problems in 2015. And they were not getting any better.
Clerk of Court George Schaefer summarizes the Court’s experience in improving the jury response rate in this way: “We’ve improved our jury response rate from a low of 36% to around 80%. Are we where we want to be? No, not yet. But through a lot of concerted effort and a software program that allows us to do what we need to do, we’re so much better off than we used to be. We’re quite pleased.”