Steve Rubley is the President of the Government Division at Thomson Reuters.
The U.S. justice system was not designed to make things easy for regular people. The complex language, the behavioral protocols and even the design of courthouses themselves all seem as if they were intentionally configured to put up barriers between judges and lawyers and the rest of us. That may make for great dialogue in a John Grisham thriller or an episode of Law and Order, but it becomes a problem when ordinary citizens need to access the justice system.
According to the Legal Services Corporation, the problem of access to justice had already reached critical proportions in 2017, with low-income Americans receiving inadequate or no professional legal help for 86% of the civil legal problems they faced. When you do the math on that, factoring in the roughly 60 million Americans who were living in low-income families, around 70% of whom were in households that faced a civil legal problem, we are talking about roughly 36 million Americans not getting the help they need.
Over the last few years, technology has increasingly been pitched as a solution to that problem. My company has been heavily involved in this effort. As a provider of legal and government software, we have introduced new technology that makes it more efficient to hold a trial or hearing by incorporating digital exhibits and evidence presentation solutions.
The widespread accessibility of video conferencing has made it so that people do not necessarily have to take time off work to participate in a hearing or a trial, while the growth of alternative dispute resolution tools, e-filing and digital evidence platforms all have shown the potential to transform the courtroom. However, it took a pandemic for such technology to become commonplace.
I believe that technology companies need to help make sure that the U.S. justice system continues on this path.
The Pandemic As Catalyst For Digital Courts
In the months following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as courtrooms around the world shut their doors and already high case backlogs started growing even more rapidly, some pioneering court systems that had been experimenting with technology prior to the pandemic saw an opportunity to solve a problem and modernize their courtrooms. Along the way, they have made significant progress on access to justice and learned a lot about how technology can be leveraged to make the justice system more equitable in the post-pandemic world.
What began as an emergency lifeline to keep the lights on, however, quickly started to show its value. Throughout the pandemic and since, court systems that implemented digital solutions have made been able to make progress on their backlog of cases as judges, lawyers and litigants all started to interact more efficiently.
Many court systems have already adopted digital tools to better support virtual, hybrid and in-person hearings and alternative dispute resolution, realizing that the ability to host the entire legal process, from discovery through hearings and trials, in a universally accessible, easy-to-use format was the key to improving access for everyone.
Many have made the digital tools they deployed during the pandemic a core part of their post-pandemic transformation.
Now, as courts continue to embrace wider use of technology to expand access to court proceedings, many courts, such as the State of New York Unified Court System, are seizing the transformation as an opportunity to design and implement a virtual extension of their existing access to justice programs.
When we move into the post-pandemic environment, it will be important to incorporate the lessons learned during the pandemic into the new justice workflow. Whether that means continuing virtual hearings in perpetuity, adopting a hybrid model in which some cases are heard virtually and others are in-person or switching back to fully in-person courts with digital enhancements built into the process, we must keep access at the forefront of the legal process.
Following the progress we have seen over the last year and a half, it is no longer acceptable that citizens involved in a domestic violence or a child custody case should have to miss a court date because they do not have transportation or cannot get out of work. Nor is it acceptable that a hearing should be delayed because someone forgot to check the overnight box on a FedEx slip for a piece of evidence. Advances in streamlined connectivity have revolutionized every aspect of our lives, breaking down barriers and democratizing access to information. Now, thanks to tech adoption spurred by the pandemic, the justice system has been included in that transformation.
Supporting Improved Access To Justice
I think technology companies have a responsibility to help develop legal and government workflow solutions that will improve access, streamline administrative red tape and provide a long-term solution to an age-old problem.
Doing that is going to require more than just selling consumer-grade tech solutions to local courthouses. The widespread technological transformation of the nation’s court system is going to require a concerted effort to develop technologies that are purpose-built for legal workflows; resilient enough to respond to endless combinations of use cases; and user-friendly enough for judges, clerks, attorneys and individuals to manage effectively.
By now, we have all seen the viral examples of technology mishaps or issues. It is important for tech firms working with government customers to recognize that not every court or user is at the same place when it comes to technological adoption. Similarly, for every court system that has plunged headlong into adopting new digital solutions during the pandemic, there are dozens more that simply set up video conferencing capabilities and stopped there.
The role of the technology industry serving government customers today needs to be not only developing innovations that work but also educating and training future users on how to get the most out of these tools. We are at a pivotal moment in the development of the U.S. court system; we have an opportunity to truly raise the game and modernize arcane processes that have been creating unnecessary barriers to justice for far too long. It is up to us to make sure that transformation is focused not just on selling new software but on solving real problems.