IAALS' Michael Houlberg Discusses Court Innovation on Pandemic Positives Webinar

December 17, 2020

On December 4, IAALS Manager Michael Houlberg joined Presiding Judge Clemens Landau of the Salt Lake City Justice Court for a webinar called “Pandemic Positives: The Silver Linings of the Justice System’s Otherwise Dark and Dreary Year.” Hosted by the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, the webinar covered new ideas and practices that legal service providers have developed from the COVID-19 pandemic that may bolster the justice system long into the future. Video of the webinar is available below.

“Obviously this has been an incredibly difficult year, [with] many challenges associated with COVID-19—and also race and racism in the United States—that we have been working through as a legal community,” said Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner. “But perhaps there’s some positives, too—and as we look back on what we’ve been able to accomplish this past year, and how many of us have had to make this transition into a new online and virtual format and what that meant for the practice of law, maybe there’s some positive takeaways from all of this.” 

The panelists began the discussion around how courts have recently been connecting and sharing ideas in unprecedented ways, with social media being a huge part of that effort; Houlberg initially connected with Judge Landau via Twitter while working on IAALS’ latest publication, Pandemic Positives: Extending the Reach of Court and Legal Services.

“We can cross-pollinate in a way that would have been unheard of last year,” Judge Landau said, remarking that before this year he wouldn’t have thought to follow what other courts (such as those in Seattle or Kansas City) were doing, or how they were adapting their operations to a pandemic.

Another positive, said Houlberg, is that the pandemic has almost forced courts to try things that have been recommended for years, but have perhaps been viewed as too out of the box or too difficult to implement. As an example, he brought up the ability for parties to schedule hearings at their convenience (a recommendation for courts from IAALS’ 2018 publication Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers). Amid the pandemic, the Salt Lake City Justice Court did just that for the first time ever. The court was finding it difficult to schedule hearings due to courthouse closures and was facing a mounting backlog of cases, so they set up a Doodle calendar and had people choose a time that worked for them. (A Doodle calendar is an online scheduling tool that enables users to set up meeting details, include multiple time options, and then invite others via email to respond to the poll.)

According to Judge Landau, “There were a couple weeks where it was slow, and then all of a sudden we were getting 50 bookings from people a day.” Even if this way of doing things was perhaps more inefficient for judges and court staff, it was incredibly efficient for the individuals appearing in court; people were able to log into their hearing from their home, workplace, or wherever. “It was a rebalancing of what our business model was.”

Another pandemic positive discussed was the increased access to both the courts and legal services. Houlberg used Alaska as an example, where the state court’s self-help center transitioned from offering their family law education class in person to one-on-one telephone calls, and is currently working to set it up on Zoom. “The great thing about that is [that] Alaska . . . has one of the most rural populations in the country, and they’re able to reach people in those areas that they weren’t able to before. And another great thing is that, with Zoom, you could potentially reach people statewide.” He also noted the digital divide that the pandemic has exposed:

“While we are moving into using technology a lot more, which is great, we have to realize that not everybody has the same tools—not everyone has a high-speed broadband, not everyone has a computer or smartphone, and so we have to develop ways for people to be able to use both [in-person and virtual legal services].”

The two then discussed how the transition to virtual may have a positive impact on the public’s view of courts overall. Houlberg pointed out how automated forms, another longstanding yet rarely implemented tool, have drastically improved the litigant experience. Previously, people had to constantly reach out to legal aid or court self-help centers while filling out various court forms—a frustrating and time-consuming experience. However, with automated forms: “It benefits them—they feel better about the process, and when they feel better about the process they feel better about the overall system.”

Houlberg and Judge Landau also felt that a virtual format for court interactions likely makes litigants more comfortable with the process, too—the judge isn’t raised high above them and the setting feels less formal, making it easier for litigants to speak. In virtual court, people are also more willing to share their opinions about their experience, and this type of open dialogue—and the simple act of a judge listening to what a litigant has to say—improves the relationship between the court and the community.

As we continue adapting to our new COVID-19 reality—and look toward daily life post pandemic—it’s vital that we think about the lessons we’ve learned, as well as maintain the flexibility and innovation that our justice system has embraced throughout the past nine months.



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