“We want people to trust the judicial branch in good times. We want people to trust the judicial branch even more in bad times.” 

Dan Wallis, Trial Court Administrator of Illinois’ 22nd Judicial Circuit, offered this remark to over 300 members of the Illinois judicial branch on March 19, 2020. He, along with Chief Judge Gene Doherty of the 17th Judicial Circuit, were presenting the timely webinar, “Access to Justice and Emergency Preparedness in a Pandemic,” for the Illinois Judicial College.

The program was reassuring, not only due to the preparedness of the courts in ensuring the delivery of justice during a pandemic, but also given the future-focused emphasis on the court as a service, not a place.

Prepping for an Emergency

The Illinois judicial branch has in place Emergency Preparedness Standards for the Illinois Circuit Courts. The standards define the minimum requirements for ensuring the continued operation of the courts and the safety of court personnel and the public in an emergency.

The standards provide that each circuit must identify “essential court functions” required to be performed by statute, rule, or court order that cannot be interrupted or deferred during, or as a result of, an emergency. The standards led to the creation of the Conference of Chief Judges Pandemic Benchbook as well as the Emergency Preparedness Continuity of Operations Plans (EP-COOP) that each circuit updates and files with the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts each year.

A significant number of circuits agree on the essential services that must be preserved during an emergency. These include mental health hearings, bond hearings, detention hearings, criminal trials with speedy trial demands for those in custody, and orders of protection, among others. Hence, the Illinois Supreme Court has posted general orders entered by the Supreme Court and the state’s circuits related to COVID-19 on its website.

The Supreme Court’s order of March 17, 2020 provided that, in order to protect the health and safety of court patrons, staff, judges, and the general public, only essential court matters should continue to be heard. All non-essential court matters and proceedings should be continued or, where possible, conducted remotely via telephone (or video in limited circumstances) or other electronic means. Orders by the chief judges of the various circuits generally follow suit.

Technology-Based Court Services Predate the Pandemic

Fortunately, the Illinois Judicial Branch has been exploring the use of technology to increase access to justice for some time. And our experience with the coronavirus may help inform more permanent procedures in the future.

The 22nd Judicial Circuit in McHenry County is a great example. In fact, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System’s publication “Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology” identified the 22nd Judicial Circuit as a national leader in leveraging text or email notifications to communicate with court users.

Since the program’s launch in April 2018, over 4,300 people have subscribed to receive automated notifications. And, since March 17, 2020, Wallis reported 250 additional people have signed up to receive email or text messages.

The 22nd has waged an aggressive communication campaign about the availability of its diverse notification channels through postcards and its social media channels. Wallis also reported that the circuit offers “drive-up orders of protection” through videoconferencing from a petitioner’s phone, remote or phone interpretation, submitting proposed orders by email, and telephone/video conferencing for certain civil matters through CourtCall.

Expanding Remote Access in Illinois

Enhancing the availability of remote access to court services is part of the Supreme Court’s broader Strategic Agenda. The words that then-Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier used to introduce the plan last fall take on new meaning today:

“If the courts are to continue to make good on the promise of equal justice under law in this new and challenging environment, we must be proactive. Waiting for problems to develop and then responding will no longer do.”

The agenda’s first strategic goal, “Accessible Justice and Equal Protection Under the Law,” has several high-level strategies that support remote access. Most relevant to our current situation is strategy 3, “Promote and enhance remote access to court services, court and case information, and court appearances.”

To that end, the Illinois Judicial Branch’s Operational Plan assigns the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Justice (ATJ Commission) the development of a policy for remote appearances in civil cases. Chair Justice Mary K. Rochford said the ATJ Commission will also suggest amendments to Supreme Court Rules necessitated by the policy and create an educational program on remote appearances.

Last December, the ATJ Commission and the Circuit Court of Cook County launched a Remote Video Pilot (RVP) program in three divisions of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Two judges from each of the Chancery, County, and Domestic Relations Divisions are using remote video in their courtrooms.

The Chancery Division is using remote video for contested mortgage foreclosure cases on two calendars. The County Division is using it for mental health proceedings with a patient at a hospital, for assisted outpatient treatment status calls, and for adoption consents involving an out of state parent. The Domestic Relations Division (which already uses video conferencing to conduct hearings involving inmates throughout the state who have a proceeding pending in Cook County) is allowing video proceedings in more routine status calls and for post-decree matters deemed eligible. Data from the RVP program will be assessed after six months to determine whether it should continue, be expanded, or terminated.

Positive Feedback on Ongoing Programs

To obtain an update on the RVP at about the halfway mark, I caught up with Justice Rochford and Carina Segalini, Court Coordinator of the Mortgage Foreclosure/Mechanics Lien Section and Project Administrator at the Circuit Court of Cook County, who is involved in the pilot’s administration. The numbers show that in the three divisions, of 111 cases judges deemed suitable for the RVP Pilot Program, 29 video court calls were held involving 45 attorneys and 23 self-represented litigants.

Although the numbers so far are small, the feedback is positive among self-represented litigants. Several expressed gratitude for being able to appear on a break from work rather than having to take time off to travel to court. The attorneys were less effusive, but those who originally expressed opposition softened after experiencing the process.

The potential benefits of remote video technology have come into sharper focus given the coronavirus pandemic. For example, hearings can be conducted remotely in proceedings where a judge, court clerk, and state’s attorney would typically go to a hospital. This proactively prevents court personnel from exposure to contagious environments.

As the RVP progresses and more cases are added, additional information will be gleaned about how remote appearances can increase access to justice for self-represented litigants and promote judicial economy.

Improving for the Future

For some time, the Illinois courts have been exploring the use of technology to deliver court services and improve access to justice. Today, physically gathering in courtrooms may compromise the health of those in the judicial branch and the people being served. An acceleration of exploration and a laser-focus on new ways to deliver court services is in order.

Chief Judge Doherty closed the “Access to Justice and Emergency Preparedness in a Pandemic” webinar by noting that disaster preparedness is out of our comfort zone. However, it is exceedingly important. Our efforts now may teach us how to improve the delivery of justice to Americans in the future, whether we’re experiencing a pandemic or not.

Quoting Gene Kranz, a NASA Flight Director on the Gemini and Apollo missions, Doherty urged the members of the judicial branch to look for opportunities to improve amid uncertainty, saying, “I believe this is going to be our finest hour!”

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