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Apr 19

How Streaming Video Can Streamline California’s Court System

Most Californians only come into contact with the legal system a few times in their lives; traffic tickets, family law and small claims court.  For most, it’s an experience they don’t want to repeat: taking time off work, maybe losing a day’s wages, paying for childcare, getting to the courthouse … and waiting.  Endless waiting.  It’s time to accelerate the use of streaming video technology as a practical alternative for ordinary people with routine court matters that have to spend countless hours at court for a 45 second appearance. 

Live video streaming, like Skype or FaceTime, is part of our everyday lives but is slow to catch on in the legal world. While the courts grapple with severe budget cuts, one cost cutting solution is to implement video technology into the court system for low-level court appearances – mostly for individuals representing themselves. When scheduling a face-to-face appearance with a judge for quick, straightforward issues, this technology can save time, money and energy. No longer will they need to take a day off of work and wait for their matter to be called. With today’s access to high speed internet, people can use their laptops, desktop computers, tablets, or even their phones to stream videoconferences with judges and the other parties.

Video conferencing could be a game changer. Courts would see less overcrowding, particularly in criminal courts where some hearings can last less than five minutes. There would no longer be packed courtrooms as individuals wait for their case to be heard. Rather, the judge can have a queue of matters ready to call, and conference with each defendant as their turn arises. Video conferencing could drastically reduce the cost of courtroom time and resources. 

There are some drawbacks. Bad connections can throw things off.  So can too many connections.  During the highly publicized criminal trial of George Zimmerman in 2013, their use of Skype for witness testimony was flooded by numerous phone calls into the Skype account used to make the call because the number was broadcast to anyone watching the trial. Proceedings were delayed, and lessons were learned on how to change settings for incoming calls.

Video conferencing is already used extensively overseas. In Singapore, there are designated Skype contacts for different chambers servicing different short hearings. Attorneys message their respective chambers, inform them they are ready to proceed, state their name, law firm, and case number, and wait for the judge to initiate the video call. This works similar to court call, currently used by many attorneys making appearances for matters that do not require a presence in chambers.

Recently, the Fresno County Superior Court, in collaboration with the cities of Coalinga and Mendota, began a trial with Remote Video Proceedings (RVP). The program allows those who were issued citations outside the Fresno-Clovis area and who need to travel in excess of 15 miles to appear in traffic court in downtown Fresno, to appear via videoconference. The program was such a success that the Judicial Counsel of California …

*what did they end up doing?  **had brought up for public comment an amendment to California Rules of Court Rule 4.220, which allows for RVP trial programs. The current rule, which is set to expire in January 2016, authorizes trial courts to establish remote video pilot projects by local rule. The program is subject to the approval of the Judicial Council in cases involving traffic infraction violations. Essentially, the amendment would allow trial courts to conduct RVP in eligible traffic cases after January 1, 2016, so long as the courts adopt a local rule permitting RVP, notify the Judicial Council and comply with a semiannual reporting requirement.

With the commenting period now closed, the Judicial Council has taken the amendment under consideration. The passage of such an amendment can only help strengthen the judicial system as a whole, while saving time and money for litigants, attorneys, employers and the court.

What we ultimately need is a massive expansion of the use of video appearances for routine matters involving self-represented litigants with an eye towards smaller matters that are the bread and butter of our judicial system.