Is Digital Court the Wave of the Future?

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)


  1. Avatar Nena L. says:

    In addition to public viewing rooms, perhaps hearings could stream online . . .

  2. Avatar Chris Wheaton says:

    Appearing via camera? What would I do with all my bow-ties?

  3. Avatar Randall R. says:

    You know, they can still see you if you appear via camera…

  4. Avatar Kevin Chern says:

    This might be a good solution for traffic courts, small claims and other quick cases. It would save people time and money since they wouldn’t have to skip work just to wait in court for a small traffic fine.

  5. Virtual justice is too impersonal and dehumanizing where liberty is at stake. For filings and the like, I love it, as with the Federal Court’s electronic court filing system.

  6. Avatar Randall R. says:

    @ Kevin – the only problem with that is unrepresented individuals might not have access to the technology needed (or required) to appear virtually.

    @ Tom – I agree the applications are limited – including situations where an individual’s liberty is at stake.

  7. Avatar Laura L. Thatcher says:

    Remote appearances at some basic motions are already commonplace in Los Angeles, where I practice. I routinely appear by telephone at status conferences and simple motions. I agree that virtual court appearance for evidentiary hearings may not be workable. . but the future is wide open.

  8. Avatar Ben Youngdahl says:

    Telepresence is just a step towards the real time-saver: asynchronous court. Get rid of the idea that all the parties need to be there live — use a messaging-based system. It would be like moving from the age of the telephone to the age of email. Instant court record too. Timely objections would still be possible, but I leave that as an exercise for the software developer. Or hire me and I’ll build it. :-P

  9. Avatar Joe Rosenthal says:

    I would remind you we are still waiting for the flying car….

  10. Avatar Bruce Colwin says:

    Flying car, Joe? That’s pure fiction! I’m waiting for my jetpack that I saw at the ’64 Worlds Fair!

  11. Avatar Steve Jackson says:

    Given the dire financial condition of many state courts, I would say this is an idea who’s time has certainly come. With all the technology available to us, why can we as a nation, not move forward and make exemplary advances to equal justice for everyone while at the same time, take advantage of the technology to streamline and improve the justice system? The future court (30, 20, or even 10 years from now) absolutely could have a virtual courtroom within every local community at a tremendous cost savings over our current, cumbersome, backlogged and very expensive court model. Electronic kiosks could: accept traffic citations, notarize and scan documents for inclusion in case files, accept fines, document community service, probation check ins, and accept AA logs. Prisoner transporation and security issues have grown beyond the ability to financially support them – why not effect legislation that mandates the use of video appearances, at least for high risk trials of in-custody persons? Several courts could be video-only appearances (small claims, traffic, juvenile, family law). Our current system is broken, anyone not acknowledging that has their head in the proverbial sand. Members of the public in certain counties within California are already being denied access to efficient justice because of staff reductions and critical budget shortfalls. How long until the pillar of justice falls…? When the public is denied justice or cannot afford the fees associated with justice – it’s simply a matter of time.

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