In 2014, I wrote, “I can easily envision a world a decade out where we reserve face-to-face interaction only for our most intimate friends and family members. The bulk of our professional and public lives will take place online. The idea of driving down to the doctor’s office or to the courthouse will seem as antiquated as getting your water from a well.”
This prediction came true more quickly than I anticipated. I thought the evolution would take place over years or decades, as we slowly migrated most of our professional lives online by choice.
A New Reality
Over the past three months, however, COVID-19 has forced us into this new reality with a sudden shock. As we sit in our houses, forbidden from interacting with others face-to-face, we have had to figure out how to move our lives online overnight. Many who have expressed skepticism about the use of online channels for communication are now being forced to relent as there are no other options.
Judicial system professionals (including court administrators, lawyers, and judges) have had to figure out in a matter of days how to deliver services online that they have been providing face-to-face for many decades. County officials are now faced with high-stakes choices as they grapple with the pandemic, citizen anxiety, and complex bureaucracy to keep the justice system afloat. As Michele Hanisee said in the Los Angeles Times, “You can’t just shut down the public safety function in a crisis… The courts have to keep working.”
County justice officials have responded to the crisis by delaying trials, excusing all jurors 60 and over, and temporarily closing courthouses. Where I live in California, courts have announced closures and delays in traffic, family, civil and probate trials, and even in some criminal trials.
Some are trying to move operations online so the system doesn’t grind to a total halt. Many court administrators are convening video, audio, and chat-based conferences with parties from home. Some are succeeding better than others at clambering up the learning curve.
The changes we are making to enable online interactions will not reverse once the crisis ends. Once our justice system figures out how to move online, there will be no going back. I want to be clear that I am not rooting for this development. The potential human toll of this pandemic is inconceivable. As tens or hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives, and tens of millions lose their jobs, this is unquestionably a large-scale catastrophe.
While we correctly focus on critical health and safety issues, we also cannot overlook the impact on the justice system. As a result of the pandemic, courts around the country are blocking filings and delaying judicial proceedings, such as pausing all evictions for 90 days. The courts were already struggling with existing caseloads before the crisis, and now they will be burdened with this additional backlog once processes resume. Combined with the huge number of newly laid-off citizens, the caseload in the courts may swell to unprecedented levels, and citizens will not be able to wait years for issues to be resolved. (As the saying goes, a civil case delayed long enough is at risk of becoming a criminal case).
Some states have taken the initiative to launch volunteer teams to help combat the COVID-19 crisis, like California’s Health Corps.
Those of us in the legal and dispute resolution communities should launch a Resolution Corps to help handle the coming influx of cases into the courts and legal service bureaus. Courts and dispute resolution providers have created mediation and resolution programs in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina to resolve cases quickly and effectively. The impact from the pandemic will be larger than those events by a factor of 1000. We need to prepare systems to help resolve issues around employment, housing, health care and family.
The good news is that we do not have to invent these systems from scratch. Tools already exist that provide tested, scalable platforms that can respond quickly. Private and public dispute resolution organizations have trained panels of mediators and arbitrators ready to help.
Working together, we can reach out to those in need and help them find solutions that deliver justice and treat them fairly. It is not going to be easy, and we do not yet know how and when this unprecedented period will end, but this is a time that calls for all of us to step up and do what we can. Let’s get to work.
Learn more by reading my Manifesto on Expanding Access to Justice.