Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Elmo projectors, wireless transceivers and lots and lots of e-filing – welcome to the “new normal” for New York’s virtual courtrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Technology has played an important and integral role for us, allowing us to move our cases forward while at the same time limiting courthouse traffic and mitigating the spread of COVID,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said. “So, as we creatively explore the many ways in which technology and virtual operations can appropriately become a permanent part of our operation, we are equally excited about the prospect of a new and even more productive normal.”
The state court system never stopped operating during the pandemic thanks entirely to virtual courtrooms. Essential matters, such as arraignments, have been handled virtually, and then gradually other less essential hearings resumed regionally in conjunction with the governor’s phased-in approach to reopening.
“I think we’re all very proud of everything that’s been accomplished in such a short period of time,” said Tamiko Amaker, administrative judge for the New York City Criminal Court. “It was a bit of a nail biter at first because we were trying to make it all happen without a lot of advance notice but our IT people were phenomenal and the staff really learned the technology and mastered it.”
Amaker said judges were provided laptops to use at home and were trained on videoconferencing technology for their virtual arraignments. Support staff were also trained on the software and were able to assist the parties in the cases, as they sent out the links for the hearings.
In New York City, Amaker said the court system handled over 25,000 virtual arraignments since the pandemic began and over 11,000 other types of proceedings including preliminary hearings in place of grand juries before they resumed during the summer.
Up until October, the state court system utilized Skype for Business for their virtual proceedings. Amaker said there were glitches with the use of Skype for Business but nothing fatal to a proceeding. An individual might freeze on the screen, prompting a user to log out and log back in, but it wasn’t frequent.
Craig Doran, an elected state Supreme Court justice and administrative judge for the Seventh Judicial District, which includes Monroe and seven other counties, agreed that glitches didn’t hinder virtual proceedings. Doran said if a lawyer has trouble getting logged on to Skype, court personnel call him or her on the phone. He said many lawyers don’t have the ability to link into a videoconference call, so they also provide a call-in number.
“Sometimes it’s a little bit messy but if we keep our eye on the endgame and try to be flexible, we usually can work it out,” said Doran. “I can’t think of an adjournment over a tech matter.”
Over the summer, the New York State Bar Association’s Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners conducted a survey of just over 100 members regarding the virtual courts and client interactions. Nearly 65% said they rarely or never had trouble connecting virtually, 67% would consider participating in virtual appearances indefinitely and over 70% rarely or never had trouble meeting with their clients virtually.
Hoping for a better overall experience, more capabilities and fewer glitches, the court system switched to Microsoft Teams in October. Amaker explained that, unlike Skype, Microsoft Teams has breakout rooms, so even in the midst of a proceeding a defendant can privately talk to his or her lawyer. On Skype, such a conversation would require the other participants to log off.
Access to Justice
In late August, a joint state Senate committee hearing examined the reopening and operation of New York’s courts during the COVID-19 pandemic. A common concern, especially amongst legal aid groups, was that some clients, especially those pro se, cannot access the court’s videoconferencing or e-filing either due to a lack of broadband or equipment.
In addition to allowing pro se litigants to call in for a hearing by telephone, Doran said they can come to the courthouse and use the court system’s equipment. They can sit in a room, have access to a computer and use the videoconferencing software.
In northern New York’s Fourth Judicial District, virtual kiosks situated near the courthouse entrance offer self-represented litigants the opportunity to participate in virtual court proceedings and receive live videoconference assistance from court personnel. These kiosks are providing access to justice for litigants who lack necessary computer equipment or internet access, particularly in the rural areas of the state where internet service is often unavailable.
In the Capital Region’s Third Judicial District, in-person help centers have been transformed into virtual help centers to provide remote assistance to hundreds of self-represented litigants, and they have even been expanded during the pandemic to include two new virtual Matrimonial and Surrogate’s Court help centers.
“We’re learning as we go. . . . We’re not denying anyone access to justice,” said Doran, who, along with Administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro of the New York City Civil Court, are leading the court system’s statewide reopening planning efforts. “Honestly, the judges have been remarkably willing and able to adapt, as have the attorneys who appear in our courts. None of us have been perfect – the process is far from perfect – but we have to keep our eye on the mission.”
Emphasis on E-Filing
Even with budgetary restrictions during the pandemic, there are some ways technology is making life a little easier for judges, attorneys, clients and jurors.
For instance, Elmo projectors are commonly used to enhance the size of evidence, including documents, that will be presented at trial so it can be viewed on a large screen for everyone socially distanced in the courtroom to see. This prevents passing around a piece of evidence touched by the litigants and the jurors. This may also bring back memories of the projectors on carts used by teachers in schools.
Also, during a pandemic when social distancing is required, a lawyer and client sitting at the table whispering during the trial is not possible. Amaker explained that the courts are using wireless transceivers, essentially earpieces, which allow people to communicate privately while still remaining distanced. She said up to six individuals can be connected to one conversation, and it is particularly handy when an interpreter is needed for the attorney-client communications.
Microphones are also very much in demand, as Amaker said, since with all the plexiglass barriers and people wearing masks, sound gets muffled. She said the court reporter and the jurors especially need to hear everything.
There has also been an even greater emphasis on e-filing during the pandemic. Previously, she said, the New York City Criminal Court was primarily a paper court with people filing motions and other memorandums of law, but during this pandemic it is primarily an e-filing court.
Throughout the pandemic, the state court system has expanded the use of its New York State Electronic Filing System (NYSCEF), especially in high volume courts like the New York City Housing Court. Jurisdictions that don’t have NYSCEF have utilized a new electronic document delivery system (EDDS). EDDS allows users in a single transaction to enter basic information about a matter on a court system website portal page, to upload one or more pdf documents and send those documents electronically to a court or clerk selected by the user.
In another way to avoid traffic in the courthouses, the court system developed a new tool that allows court staff to send group text messages to attorneys and litigants notifying them of when their cases are ready to be heard. This allows them to wait in more spacious areas of the courthouse or even outside of the courthouse, rather than everyone congregating in courtrooms waiting for their cases to be called.