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Pandemic lessons for the courts News

CANANDAIGUA — As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

That adage certainly applied to the state court system two years ago, when it was all but paralyzed during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. When it became apparent courthouses could be closed indefinitely, at least to the public, officials turned to virtual technology on an emergency basis.

“Ironically, we had been engaged in a number of efforts to modernize the court system to take us into the future, and then came the pandemic,” state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran said during a recent interview. “The pandemic really forced us into a mindset of working outside the box, being creative and rapidly implementing new technology.”

While the emergency measures helped keep some cases going and the court system functioning to some extent, Doran said they were somewhat haphazard.

“In some instances we were considering things on an hourly basis, literally changing procedures that were hundreds of years old and steeped in tradition and precedent — a system very much focused on procedure,” he added. “Technology doesn’t always neatly fit into these procedural changes.”

Now that things are mostly back to normal, Doran and others are looking back at the stopgap measures with an eye towards the future. He is chairing a working group of the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts, which is having public hearings next month in Buffalo and New York City. The commission is chaired by attorney Hank Greenberg, former president of the New York State Bar Association.

“We saw more changes in the first two months of the pandemic than we saw in 200 years of legal practice and judicial decision-making,” Greenberg said in a news release. “The court system can learn from pandemic lessons and build on the technological improvements and innovations that were successful.”

In June, the working group had a successful public hearing in Albany with 30 presenters. Doran said while that hearing provided invaluable insight, “it’s time to take this show on the road.”

“In order to get the most complete picture of how pandemic practices impacted — positively or negatively — court operations, we need to hear from people across the state,” he said. “The experience in metropolitan New York may well have been different than the experience in Western New York, and the experience in the Capital Region was also unique. To get the full picture, we need to hear from people in every region.”

The commission includes judges, attorneys, academics and technology experts. Among the topics it is addressing:

• The impact of court-ordered covid technology, practices/protocols and policy on the fair and efficient administration of justice in the courts, including the use of remote technologies as well as modified in-person procedures for court proceedings.

• The ways in which pandemic practices impacted the efficiency of the courts in providing timely and accessible legal services, including language access, to all litigants.

• New or reimagined uses for technology to improve efficiency and access to justice.

• Blending in-person and virtual practices to meet the varied needs of different court users.

• The impact of pandemic practices on the work of attorneys, judges and court staff.

• The use of technology to make courts more accessible for New Yorkers with limited mobility, who live in rural areas, who have childcare obligations, or who otherwise may struggle to attend court proceedings in person.

“At some times in the pandemic, we had judges in their homes and litigants (attorneys) in their homes … when nobody could be in the courthouse. We were reluctant to use that technology previously,” Doran said. “Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can make much more use of that virtual technology to make us more efficient. For example, in cases assigned to me we can do much more on a day of virtual conferences instead of having lawyers come in one after another, some from other states. That makes it less costly for their clients.”

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