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Groups: Remote court hearings compromise Attorney-client relationships

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As the court system works to catch up from pandemic disruptions, many courts continue to use remote technology or are testing new ways to incorporate it. But groups that advocate for criminal-justice reform and juvenile justice are voicing concerns. They say these steps raise questions about litigants’ rights, their access to representation and other resources.

Especially with children, said Veronica Williams, who founded Mothers Against Wrongful Convictions, it’s important for them to feel they have a support system, and in-person relationships can be key.

“When they are dealing with court hearings and proceedings, we have to understand that they are fragile,” she said. “And when they become fragile, they can become disoriented. And if we’re not careful, we lose them in the system.”

Research has found children are more likely to be perceived as less accurate, believable or consistent if they testify by video. In a study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, 66% of respondents said “going remote” has compromised attorney-client communication, making it harder to have confidential conversations and build relationships.

Without universal access to high-speed internet, said Doug Keith, a counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, many attorneys working during the pandemic have reported poor audio or video quality. He noted that 4% of Americans and 9% of those in rural areas lack access to broadband.

“Twenty-six percent of people in the Black, rural South and 18% of people on tribal lands lack such access,” he said, “so it’s clear that there are significant communities across this country, and within most states, that have disparate access to this technology.”

He said there are some contexts where remote hearings can be beneficial – for instance, in civil cases with low-income parties who may have limited time off work, or for legal-aid organizations to reach underserved areas of their states. But he said it’s important to take a careful look at whether proceedings can have better outcomes in person.

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