Supreme Court of Ohio has compiled new guides for using technology, including remote court proceedings, creating a technology plan, and building on existing successes.
The Supreme Court has compiled new guides for using technology, including remote court proceedings, creating a technology plan, and building on existing successes.
Courts operate in an increasingly technological world following the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020. This forced the rapid deployment of technology to stay open, which also increased participation by people with court dates.
While the pace and scale of adding technology to courts was unprecedented, it was a movement already underway and has forever changed how people access courts to resolve legal problems.
When a court takes filings electronically, traveling to the courthouse to physically file documents is no longer necessary, which saves time and money in a case. Virtual hearing platforms also save time and money when short status conferences and other hearings can be done remotely. Even before the pandemic, Ohio courts permitted remote appearances and conducted hybrid hearings using phone or live video. During the last few years, Ohio courts moved to adopt newer kinds of technology faster than ever before.
To assist courts with efforts to adopt technology solutions, the Supreme Court of Ohio has compiled new guides for using technology, such as conducting remote hearings and drafting a court technology plan. In addition, amendments to update Ohio court rules in light of the changing technology landscape were suggested in 2021 by the Improving Court Operations Using Remote Technology (iCOURT) Task Force, made up of judges, attorneys, court officials, and justice partners. Their input advised how the judicial branch can employ technology going forward, given the effective ways courts adapted during the pandemic.
“Using technology has decreased failure-to-appear rates, the number of continuances, and default judgments,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said. “Technology facilitates the expeditious disposition of cases and increases access to courts so people can resolve life-altering legal problems.”
Guidance for Remote Court Proceedings
“A Judicial Guide to Conducting Remote Hearings” identifies essential steps when holding an online proceeding. The guide describes the minimum requirements for such hearings – addressing not only technology, but also attorney-client communications, document exchange, accommodations for those with disabilities or limited English proficiency, and other factors.
It explains how to:
- Prepare for and conduct a remote hearing.
- Provide effective instructions for participants.
- Identify alternatives for participants.
- Record the hearing.
- Set up public access to hearings.
The publication contains a remote hearing checklist, draft instructions to assist participants attending court, and a sample script for judges and magistrates when beginning an online proceeding.
Managing some types of cases with technology – eviction, debt collection, and child support modification – can mean better economic outcomes for families and individuals, as well as reducing time for both a resolution for families and individuals and on the court’s schedule.
Information About July 1 Rule Changes
The recommendations from the iCOURT task force included proposed updates to the Rules of Practice and Procedure for Ohio courts. The Ohio Constitution requires that changes to these rules be submitted to the General Assembly. The rules automatically go into effect on July 1 unless the legislature disapproves. This year, the General Assembly rejected several of the proposed rule amendments.
However, the legislature’s action doesn’t prohibit using technology to conduct an online hearing or to allow a party to appear remotely. The purpose of the iCOURT-recommended changes was to place a more formal structure around the practices already in place at many courts for remote proceedings. The rule amendments also would have promoted uniformity of practice across different types of courts – criminal, civil, and juvenile. The discretion on how to conduct remote hearings and appearances still rests with each court, which is in the best position to assess the individual circumstances of each case.
This kind of structure makes it easier for practitioners as well as self-represented litigants to operate within the court system. And any improvements through technology will benefit all parties and ensure due process, procedural fairness, transparency, and equal access.
Courts also may adopt a local rule to explicitly permit remote hearings and appearances. Under the superintendence rules, courts are authorized to implement local rules to promote the “use of any device or procedure” that facilitates the timely disposition of cases, if the practice doesn’t conflict with other rules put in place by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has assembled more information to address questions on permitted uses of technology for court operations after July 1.
Creating a Technology Plan
Following a rule change effective on July 1, courts must adopt, by local rule, a technology plan. “Technology Plan Guidance for Local Courts” provides courts with a step-by-step approach to get it done.
As courts update operations, a documented plan will provide consistent understanding of how a court will efficiently and effectively implement technology, such as remote hearings, electronic filing, electronic signatures, and more. The plan becomes an important court resource. It can also provide instructions to the public on how to interact with the court and details accessibility accommodations.
The guide walks courts through a customizable Technology Plan Template and provides a sample technology plan, a template for drafting a local rule to adopt the plan, and a sample local rule. The guide was developed by the Supreme Court of Ohio in collaboration with the Ohio Judicial Conference’s Technology Committee.
Building on Existing Successes
Technology to ease the workload of courts and the financial burden to litigants is not new in Ohio. As early as 2015, under the leadership of Chief Justice O’Connor, the Supreme Court of Ohio upgraded its electronic filing and began providing Ohio courts with money to improve technology and the court experience.
At the time, the use of technology tools in courts across the country wasn’t widespread. For example, the Texas court system never held a remote civil court proceeding prior to March 2020. From March 2020 to February 2021, there were 1.1 million remote civil and criminal hearings conducted in that state. Other courts’ functions moved online as well.
The Supreme Court of Ohio’s new guides on using technology in the courts provide consistent best practices as courts grow in their use of technology.