Google is working on an experimental fiber optic network that promises ultra fast internet speeds, more than 100 times faster than what most Americans currently have access to. As both court administration and attorneys rely more on the internet, will digital court become a reality?

Trending towards digital lawyering

Ten years ago, the idea of digital court was probably laughable. Now, federal courts use a paperless, digital, filing method. Every pleading is submitted through the electronic case filing system (ECF). The advantages are numerous: every pleading is online; both parties can access everything; near instant filing; email notification of filings. Cost is another obvious advantage for both attorneys and court administration. The two biggest counties in Minnesota are rumored to be moving in the same direction.

A number of courts now allow attorneys to appear by phone, if the judge grants the request in advance. Depositions can be conducted via either phone or video conference. Although many attorneys prefer to conduct depositions in person, some are willing to conduct video depositions in an effort to save money. The trend is clear: high speed internet and new hardware technologies are allowing attorneys to litigate more and more without actually leaving their office. Is the next step allowing attorneys to appear via digital video?

Appearing in court online

The idea is not all that preposterous. Non-dispositive motions, for example, generally just involve a judge, and counsel for both sides. If high speed internet technology would allow all three parties to be present and interact simultaneously, do they really need to be in the same room? Admittedly, grainy videos with slow internet connection is no substitute. Life size, high definition video, streaming in real time is a different story. Counsel for each side can watch each other sweat. The judge can still ask questions and interact in real time with no delay.

Economic concerns of traditional courts

There are a number of ways this would save everyone money. Attorneys would not need to travel to and from the courthouse, saving time, saving money for their client, and reducing greenhouse emissions. Judges could preside from their chambers, or at least a much smaller courtroom. Court administrators could cut costs by reducing staff (no bailiff, security, etc.) and reducing utility bills. Lower court costs could lead to lower filing fees, which may allow more individuals access to the justice system.

At the same time, attorneys and courts would incur new costs in terms of high-definition cameras in their office, paying for super high speed internet, and perhaps even a small office that could be used just for the online conferencing. The cost of installing a small office, with super high speed internet, and a high definition camera setup is unlikely to be cheap anytime soon. In the long term, however, this set-up will save firms money compared with traveling to and from court.

Downsides of digital court

There is also something to be said for physically appearing in court. It is intimidating to stand at the podium in front of a judge. It would undoubtedly feel less formal, and perhaps be taken less seriously, if attorneys are appearing from their own office. Attorneys usually bring their “A” game when they go to court; could the same be said for talking to a digital video camera in an empty room?

Having courts that are easily accessible to the public is one reason why the American justice system is generally revered. If motion and hearings are conducted online, how would the public see them? One option is to set up public viewing rooms in the courthouses. Digital court administrators could set up small stations where members of the public can choose any of the currently public hearings.

The system is moving digital

Allowing attorneys to appear via video will ultimately result in all parties saving resources, time, and money. While there are downsides, they are outweighed by the positive factors, and there are many ways to alleviate or eliminate the downsides.

Flying cars seem ridiculous, but digital court appearances via video might be coming sooner than you think.

(photo: Erin Nealey)