May 01, 2013

Will Virtual Courts Create Courthouse Relics?

By Keith B. Kaplan

Courts exist as neutral forums for dispute resolution.1 Are courthouses then necessary to dispense justice or can a virtual court fulfill this role? A virtual court is a conceptual idea of a judicial forum that has no physical presence but still provides the same justice services that are available in courthouses. Access to virtual courts would be limited to online access, videoconferencing, and teleconferencing. No longer would imposing buildings be the sign of justice. Virtual courts would save on overhead and costs associated with operating court facilities and could improve access to justice, but at what cost? Is the ability to dispense justice from home worth the price of reducing in-person human interaction? Courts are already moving toward virtual courthouses, but the extent to which physical courthouses will be utilized in the future is up to current trends in technology and the importance placed on the traditional role that physical courthouses play in dispensing justice. When looking toward the future, the fundamental purposes of the courts must be taken into account.

Technology Trends

The future of the courts is greatly dependent on technology and how technology can improve the functioning of the courts. Advances in technology can improve the courts and the public’s access to court services. Not only will new technology allow for greater access to the courts, but it can also improve how efficiently the courts operate in these difficult financial times.

As technology improves, some courts have already implemented e-courthouses.2 Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Arizona, recently moved into a new courthouse that utilizes e-courtrooms. These courtrooms have microphones throughout, flat-screen monitors for the court and jurors, two-way videoconferencing to allow for court appearances from locations other than in the courthouse, evidence display systems with touch screens that allow exhibits to be highlighted and annotated, and full audio and visual digital recording of proceedings.3

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