By Bob Rath, Chief Innovation Officer | Indiana Supreme Court
The Supreme Court launched the Innovation Initiative with subgroups to focus on family law and technology. The Family Law Taskforce and the Technology Working Group spent the last year evaluating the landscape and preparing a series of recommendations for presentation to the Innovation Initiative and the Supreme Court.
In its research, the TWG analyzed 18 Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers, a report from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. It presents recommendations from the perspective of court customers (attorneys, litigants, and the public), which contrasts with the approach common among technology vendors. Their tactics typically reflect the perspective of their own direct customers: court staff. This article describes two of the eighteen ways mentioned in the report: online dispute resolution and remote appearances. Also covered is a pilot project to simplify the management of digital exhibits.
Online Dispute Resolution
Both the FLT and the TWG recommended the implementation of Online Dispute Resolution services in family law, small claims, and evictions. ODR is an online portal where parties communicate via chat and negotiate with each other at any time of day. It is similar to sending text messages or interacting on social media. Each step of the question-and-answer dialogue takes place when the speaker is available. Consider this scenario: a petitioner asks a question in the morning; the respondent answers at noon. The petitioner replies in the evening. They communicate at their convenience without being in the same place at the same time.
Parties who negotiate over ODR may reach a settlement on their own or, in some cases, with the help of a mediator. If the entire dispute is settled, parties can file their agreement with the court and cancel any scheduled hearings; otherwise, the hearing would take place as scheduled, though perhaps with a more limited focus, especially if the parties reached a partial settlement.
The Office of Judicial Administration is working with commercial software providers and the Innovation Initiative teams to launch pilot projects later in 2021.
Enabling Customers to Appear in Court by Telephone or Video Conference
Remote appearances have become routine for many court customers as judges across the state implemented virtual hearings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As courts transition back to “normal” operations, the ability to appear by telephone or video conference will remain valuable to many.
Attorneys can appear in routine hearings more efficiently from their office, at a lower cost to their clients, and participate remotely in multiple courts—even in multiple counties in a single day—expanding their potential customer base. Parties can appear from work or from home, reducing time away from work and cutting the cost of parking and transportation to court.
Courts that have routinely offered virtual hearings during the pandemic will likely want to continue but will need to evaluate current courtroom technology to see if enhancements can be made. It is more difficult to include both remote and in-person participants in a hearing than it is to be entirely remote (e.g., via Zoom or WebEx) or entirely in-person. Court rules may need to be modernized to accommodate technologies that will persist going forward.
Online Portal for Digital Exhibits
An online portal for digital exhibits and evidence would make it easier to share information between remote and in-person participants. The TWG recommended a pilot project for attorneys and parties to have an online way to propose exhibits to the court in advance of a hearing. This would streamline the distribution of proposed exhibits to the judge and other parties, allow participants to view all proposed exhibits in one place, and reduce the need for court staff to scan exhibits that are typically presented in hard copy in open court.
This recommendation predates COVID-19, but the project’s potential value became even clearer during the public health emergency. For virtual hearings during the pandemic, each court developed its own procedures—often email based—for parties to send exhibits and evidence. Email can be problematic with large files, including scanned documents, pictures, and multimedia files (audio or video). Email systems typically impose a size limit on attachments, and that limit may vary from one system to another.
The Supreme Court approved the TWG’s recommendation of a pilot project for an online portal. Hamilton County judges volunteered to launch the pilot project in specific family law cases. Attorneys from the FLT and the TWG joined the Hamilton County courts in a mock hearing, which was recorded for future training.
The Office of Judicial Administration subscribed to the Thomson Reuters Digital Evidence Portal for the pilot. Preliminary results in the family law cases have been positive, and the courts are expanding the scope to include civil tort, plenary, and mortgage foreclosure cases.
As courts return to in-person proceedings, the OJA project team will evaluate this concept for the post-pandemic environment. The potential value is higher in courts with modern courtroom technology, including those that support remote appearance by telephone or video.
The FLT and TWG considered many more innovative ideas, which are being reviewed by the Innovation Initiative and the OJA. The teams also look forward to supporting the efforts of the Civil Litigation Taskforce, which was created in January 2021. It will present its report in December 2021.