National Center for State Courts
The coronavirus pandemic has brought misery, if not inconvenience, to the vast majority of the nation, but it has also brought some silver linings. When it comes to state courts, officials say the pandemic has forced courts to become more nimble, particularly in their ability to conduct remote hearings.
And some reports suggest that more litigants are showing up for those remote hearings than for in-person hearings before the pandemic. Judges and administrators in many of the 41 states and territories that mandate or urge their courts to use teleconferencing or videoconferencing to conduct remote hearings say they have noticed a difference.
More than anything else, court officials cite convenience as the reason for higher appearance rates. If litigants can appear from their cars or their kitchen tables, they’re more likely to do so.
In some parts of North Dakota, appearance rates for persons with an outstanding criminal warrant from a different county are at roughly 100 percent, compared to about 80 percent before the pandemic, said District Court Judge James Hovey.
Convenience is a factor, but Judge Hovey noted that in instances in which a defendant is making an appearance before him and there is an outstanding warrant from another county, the defendant in the past might not have shown up for a hearing at a courthouse out of fear that once that hearing was over he would be apprehended and taken to the other county. That’s not happening now that defendants attend hearings remotely, he said.
New Jersey has tracked criminal cases in its superior courts, where more than 20,000 hearings have been scheduled since March 2. The failure-to-appear rate dropped from 20 percent to 0.3 percent starting the week of March 16, when courts began to conduct virtual hearings, said Peter McAleer, director of the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts’ Office of Communications and Community Relations.
Michigan has seen failure-to-appear rates plummet in recent months. Considering all its cases, the rate went from 10.7 percent in April 2019 to 0.5 percent in April of this year.
“While the failure-to-appear data have limitations that don’t allow for us to draw immediate conclusions, we are eager to learn more about the impact of remote hearings,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack. “More broadly, we know the dramatic expansion in remote hearings has launched a fundamental and positive change in the way courts do business, making them more accessible and efficient, and we are not going back.”
Other states are also reporting high appearance rates anecdotally, even if they don’t yet have numbers to document it. It will take months, if not years, and more thorough research to reach any empirically valid conclusions, but initial evidence suggests that remote hearings are reducing the likelihood that litigants will fail to appear for their day in court.