The CBF/Circuit Court Pro Se Advisory Committee recently submitted detailed recommendations to facilitate the permanent use of remote court appearances to improve efficiency and access in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Remote access has proven to be a game changer for improving access to justice during the pandemic, a point underscored by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke in her recent letter to all judges and court personnel around the state.
More specifically, the Pro Se Advisory Committee proposed making remote access universally available for routine court dates and non-evidentiary hearings, along with improved communication and resources for the public to participate in remote court proceedings.
Building off the lessons learned while launching the new Early Resolution Program, the Committee proposed implementing a similar model where all civil cases are set on remote calls for their initial court dates. There would then be flexibility for subsequent court dates to take place on a fully remote, fully in-person, or hybrid basis depending on the nature of the court date, preferences of the parties, and the judge’s discretion.
While trials and evidentiary hearings should normally be held in-person unless a litigant can show good cause, remote hearings have proven to be an efficient and economical alternative for non-evidentiary hearings and routine matters that can reduce the strain on building facilities and ease the financial and logistical burdens for both litigants and lawyers.
The benefits offered by the increased availability of remote hearings during the pandemic have been legion. Litigants can appear in court without taking time off from work or having to arrange childcare. Lawyers and litigants alike can avoid costly and time-consuming travel. Legal aid and pro bono lawyers can serve clients across Cook County, and even the state, far more efficiently and in far greater numbers. Litigants with disabilities have additional options for accessing court and other legal services. And victims of domestic violence and others who may be at risk of harm if they leave a place of safety have another avenue to access the protections of the law.
The Committee also noted the importance of technical support, easy access to information, and flexibility with remote court appearances so they can be an equitable tool in advancing access to justice. To ensure that remote access to the courts can be as beneficial as possible without inadvertently creating new barriers for some, the Committee recommended a series of procedures and safeguards to ensure that all court patrons, especially self-represented litigants, can benefit from the flexibility and convenience of remote court appearances.