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June 03, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

A Virtual Path to Justice: Paving Smoother Roads to Courtroom Access

By Amy Petkovsek

Pre-2020, it would have been difficult to imagine sitting in front of a screen in your living room to show a doctor the rash on your child’s arm, or a virtual space where therapists treat clients hiding in cars and huddling in a room holding a phone screen to work through depression and anxiety. Yet, these “temporary” alterations are now woven into the provision of services in our post-isolation world. The pandemic presented a multitude of challenges, but we also learned how to virtually access life-changing services that will continue to help many people. One such service is seeking justice via a virtual court system like never before. 

The pandemic presented a multitude of challenges, but we also learned how to virtually access life-changing services that will continue to help many.

The pandemic presented a multitude of challenges, but we also learned how to virtually access life-changing services that will continue to help many.


In the initial weeks of the pandemic in spring 2020, attorneys, litigants, and court personnel struggled to imagine how to be productive in the new reality. Initial attempts to connect to courtrooms virtually were limited, clunky, and time-consuming. There were no previously established methods to enter evidence, speak privately with co-counsel or clients, or provide language interpretation services. Jokes about the attorney who appeared on Zoom as a cat spread across all social media platforms. “I’m a lawyer, not a cat!” made children giggle and attorneys fearful that they, too, would become a meme.

However, courtroom justice recovered. There were glimpses into accessibility for clients that never existed before. Courtrooms across the nation began having critical discussions about what types of services might remain virtual. Scheduling hearings became a five-minute Zoom meeting instead of a two-hour drive to exchange calendar dates. Postponements could be conducted between trials. Lawyers who represented clients on the margins of society realized technology presented a tremendous opportunity to create and sustain access for clients with limited financial resources to attend court.

Immediate Benefits

One of the broadly applicable benefits of remote courtroom hearings for low-income clients in civil legal proceedings is the ability to attend a hearing from any location, thus saving costs in myriad ways.

First, transportation costs are eliminated. Paying for a bus, a train, or gas for a car no longer is a concern. There is no need to pay parking meters, a daily parking garage fee, or the ticket when a meter expires after an unexpectedly long wait in court. In the past, clients sometimes risked a “driving without a license” charge by borrowing a car and driving to court with an expired or suspended driver’s license to avoid missing a crucial court hearing. Today, clients can avoid making the same decision. Additionally, clients save money on food while out of the home for an extended six- to eight-hour wait for a 15-minute court hearing. Clients can save on childcare and no longer lose many hours of revenue-generating time. Virtual hearings take exactly the time that the court proceedings last. A low-income client can return to work or pick up extra Uber or DoorDash shifts. The additional hours of transportation, finding parking, buying food, childcare drop-off and pickup, and waiting around for your turn before the judge are avoided entirely.

 There are other benefits beyond money. Clients can stay in their “comfort zone.” They can attend court virtually from their home, car, workspace, or the home of a trusted friend. When a client leaves that space to venture into a courthouse where they’ve never set foot before, they often report feeling unsafe, unsure of themselves, less familiar, judged for their appearance and lack of knowledge, and confused. There is the process of figuring out where the courtroom is located, where the waiting areas are, how to nurse a child, where to eat, how to go outside and take a smoke break, and how to navigate the court security systems. All of these scenarios are potential anxiety-provoking discomforts that are eliminated when the hearing is remote. Also, the client is often able to have someone “with” them virtually in a way they could not be in person. A spouse, friend, neighbor, or family member can sit alongside them to offer support during the remote hearing. That same person likely could not take a day off of work and travel to the in-person court hearing with the client.

Across the United States, children in the foster care system are required to attend court hearings. In the past, in-person hearings required these youth to miss entire days of school, including tests, soccer practices, assemblies, and field trips. Foster children clients often remark that they never are eligible for “perfect attendance” awards, simply due to their required presence in court. What is more, parents are sometimes “no-shows,” hearings are rescheduled, and foster clients miss additional days of classes. Remote hearings allow foster youth to take 30-minute breaks, sit in the guidance counselor’s office, and return directly to class. The option to participate remotely and still have the normalcy and support of school has made a world of difference for foster youth across the nation.

For undocumented individuals, the benefits of remote hearings are also significant. Attending a court hearing in person, whether the hearing is related to egregious behavior by a landlord or to seek child custody, becomes a much riskier and more challenging task when the client risks interaction with federal deportation officials. Whether or not interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement are a reality at local state courts, there is a substantial fear in the undocumented immigrant community that such interactions will occur, and thus, important hearings are missed. With remote access, clients can participate in the judicial system without risking upending their lives and families.

Prior to 2020, impoverishment was the direct cause of many court postponements. Litigants not having access to childcare, transportation, and enough cell phone minutes to speak with an attorney all were reasons for courts to reschedule hearings. Now, fewer hearings are postponed or canceled solely for reasons of poverty. The ability to join virtually from any location takes the judicial system one step closer to an even playing field. Clients are also not as concerned with purchasing new clothes to appear “suitable” for court, and a client’s overall appearance is no longer judged by a jury or court officials as it once was. Taking in-person presence out of the equation helps minimize the damage done by implicit and explicit biases.

There are also physical health benefits to our clients who live on the margins. Clients living in poverty are especially vulnerable to illness and germs, in part because they do not have affordable health care. These same clients frequently work in public spaces, and they return home to crowded living conditions. Allowing their courtroom experience to be germ-free is a way to protect these susceptible clients from further exposure to COVID-19, flu, and other diseases. Moreover, clients with physical mobility issues are saved from the distress of navigating stairs, unfamiliar terrain, long paths to courtrooms, and hours of sitting uncomfortably, all of which exacerbate existing physical conditions.

Continued Hurdles

Despite the abundance of benefits, there are certainly continuing challenges that need to be addressed to make the virtual path to justice the most beneficial it can be for clients. There needs to be consistent access to a stable, strong internet connection nationwide. In cities, there are a multitude of accessible locations in public spaces that allow for virtual court participation and a strong internet connection, including recreation centers, libraries, schools, and legal aid offices. These same options are not always available in rural areas, and internet networks remain spotty and expensive in these regions. Internet providers have started to step up and improve both infrastructure and costs, but this is a continuing area of limitation on an otherwise robust justice delivery system. A related yet easier pothole to fill on the road to justice is access to working technology equipment. Gratefully, there are many national programs across America to provide Chromebooks, cellular devices, and other technology to those without access. Additionally, many public school systems offer such equipment to each child, providing a way to access court in every household. It will be a continued effort, however, to replace, update, and maintain these technologies.

There are non-tangible concerns as well, including concerns related to privacy issues, as clients may need to choose connections to court where others cannot overhear parts of private hearings. There are clients who attend hearings while driving, which presents both safety and distraction concerns. It is, at times, more difficult for attorneys to discuss pressing and private matters with clients if they are not in the same locations. Clients may be distracted by pets, children, construction, and ringing doorbells and phones in ways that they would not be if they were present in person. If the judge can see a client’s home background, there may be judgments about cleanliness, space, or caregiving that would typically be unseen. Most concerning is the risk to clients seeking protection from domestic violence. These clients may feel that there is no way to speak their truth safely from an in-home hearing. It is essential for organizations that specialize in representing victims and survivors of domestic violence to have a strong voice in best practices for remote hearing participation, which often includes the client joining virtually from a predetermined, safe location.

Long-Term Implications

In March 2020, when the world was tipped upside down, a shift to virtual hearings became a necessity. Now we can choose if and when to use the remote option and how to best support clients virtually. We are free to develop efficient procedures and safety mechanisms. The implications for justice and the removal of barriers in civil proceedings are tremendous. Moving forward, there are issues, concerns, and problems that must carefully be addressed and remedied by careful planning, being strategic in our thinking, and including our low-income clients in decision-making about how to best implement remote court participation. The path to virtual justice is long, but the walk will help us improve justice for years to come.

Amy Petkovsek, Esq.

Executive Director, Community Law Center

Amy Petkovsek, Esq., is the executive director of the Community Law Center, where she oversees innovative and zealous legal advocacy efforts across Maryland communities. She previously directed the development of the Community Lawyering Initiative, Lawyer in the Library, and Lawyer in the Schools programs at Maryland Legal Aid.