California Governor Gavin Newson just signed SB 241, extending remote court hearings through July 1, 2023. The decision to enact this legislation stemmed from the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As California and other states continue to extend remote court access, the likelihood of these adaptations becoming permanent appears promising. California is one of the most influential states when it comes to legislation, so others are likely to follow suit.

California’s Emergency Move to Remote Court Access

California and other jurisdictions opened their courts virtually in 2020 in response to the spread of COVID-19. The emergency accommodation was initially a temporary solution to an unprecedented situation. Without SB 241, the end date for the emergency legislation was unclear, leading to concerns over how the state would continue to hear cases in the near future. Now, many hope that the extension will lead to a permanent policy.

SB 241’s Author Pushes For Remote Access Indefinitely

Democratic State Senator Tom Umberg drafted SB 241 to ensure continued remote court access even beyond the pandemic. California, like many other states, is facing a massive backlog of cases. The system’s only chance of catching up will be to use both remote and in-person hearings.

Umberg also believes that the extended remote access to the courts will offer data to support permanent change. Many in the legal community are promoting virtual court proceedings as a way to increase access to justice. Other benefits, including the ability to attend court without finding childcare or taking the day off work, are already helping members of the public.

Officials in California released a report singing the praises of remote hearings, and the state is not the only one considering making the emergency accommodations the norm. While some express concern over shifting court access to remote settings in perpetuity, others called the new legislation a victory for the justice system that promotes equity and fairness. For many people who witnessed the success of remote court hearings, the positives far outweigh any drawbacks.

California Courts Influence the Nation

While state politicians weigh the pros and cons of drastically modernizing the court system, Umberg and others know that their decisions are seen as a compass for others. As Umberg puts it, “I think that this is a national issue, and we in California want to make sure that we are in the lead in terms of access to justice.”

California’s decision and current status of the legal field indicate that now is the time to push for change.

Resistance to Change is Evaporating

Advocates of legal field modernization see opportunity in the challenges that COVID-19 presented. Since the court system had no choice but to adapt, professionals who were ‘forced’ into Zoom hearings many months ago no longer fear them.

Additionally, opposition to remote hearings ostensibly based on concerns over technology’s accuracy or reliability often masks a deeper fear that automation will replace human jobs. However, in practice, digital tools are supporting human professionals, not replacing them. Digital court reporters, for instance, are building their careers by filling gaps created by a shortage of stenographers and a backlog of cases.

Despite some holdouts in the legal field, judges, lawyers and politicians know how much there is to gain by going virtual. Although the percentage of remote versus traditional hearings may vary, California’s decision suggests that as the legal world becomes increasingly digital, most professionals aren’t looking back.

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