Utah courts will still hold virtual hearings after pandemic, chief justice says – KSL.com

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SALT LAKE CITY — Like many sectors, Utah’s court system will not fully return to pre-pandemic operations as virtual accessibility has helped more people access justice, the state’s chief justice said Tuesday.
"Some changes have proven to be beneficial to the people and will continue in the future. Some remain temporary, at least until we can return to something similar to pre-pandemic operations," Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant told lawmakers during his State of the Judiciary address on the first day of the 2022 Utah Legislature.
The Utah Judicial Council is studying changes made during the last two years of the pandemic and evaluating the impacts they’ve had on residents. While jury trials began taking place in person again in May 2021, other proceedings continue to be held virtually.
Due to the move to a largely virtual model, tens of thousands of people have been able to "fully engage" in court cases without needing to take time off from work. Attorneys, parties and witnesses in cases have avoided travel time and expenses due to the ability for them to appear remotely, Durrant said.
Those located in rural areas can also seek help from a broader array of attorneys across the state without needing to pay for travel, he added.
But the shift hasn’t come without challenges — remote appearances sometimes slow down proceedings, background noise impacts the quality of court recordings, and technical issues have required IT staff members to work many hours to fix them, sometimes delaying hearings, the chief justice said.
The court system is working to address those issues and to develop "robust" judicial systems. As virtual proceedings will "almost certainly" be part of the system moving forward, Durrant emphasized the courts will work with stakeholders to determine the best ways to use virtual and in-person proceedings.
Judicial leaders are also working to address gaps in access to justice, Durrant said, noting that legal problems of all kinds are "embedded in our everyday lives."
"But for most people, legal assistance is out of reach," he said.
Attorneys often give their time, but "we cannot pro bono our way out of the access to justice crisis," according to Durrant.
Through the new online Self-Help Center, the courts have allowed people to access court information virtually in one place. Court staff members and experts are available to provide online assistance, Durrant said.
Another pilot program, Online Dispute Resolution, allows those involved in small claims disputes to communicate with each other and an online facilitator to try to resolve their issues on mutually acceptable terms before they need to see a judge. Durrant said 28 justice courts across the state will be using the program by the end of this year.
The Office of Fairness and Accountability that formed last year has been working with underserved residents to better understand their needs and experiences, Durrant said, describing those relationships as "critical" to the courts.
The Utah Supreme Court is also seeking to reduce barriers to justice through the Office of Legal Services Innovation, which operates a regulatory sandbox, or controlled environment, that allows participants to seek regulatory waivers so they can offer legal services in "new and innovative ways," Durrant said. The program has approved 31 entities that are offering services.
For example, one group of attorneys that serves domestic violence victims asked nonlawyer victim advocates they work with to assist victims in attaining protective orders. Those advocates receive training and get supervised by lawyers, Durrant said.
Durrant said the Utah Supreme Court will ask the Legislature for ongoing funding for several positions to support its ongoing work to provide legal access to more people.

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