Is use of videoconferencing an access-to-justice issue? Although videoconferencing might be impersonal and cumbersome for contested hearings, it generally has been a benefit for many shorter hearings held throughout cases.
Attorneys who attended the Annual Meeting and Conference and various section and division meetings, colleagues in my family and elder law practice, and civil and criminal litigators have asked why we cannot continue videoconferencing for hearings such as status and scheduling conferences or perhaps initial appearances. Many counties still use videoconferencing for these hearings, but other counties require in-person appearances. Why?
Travel might take more time than hearings themselves, and lawyers with hourly fee structures charge clients for travel time. One lawyer traveled 90 minutes each way the day before trial to a pretrial hearing that lasted 3-5 minutes, but had to charge the client for more than three hours’ travel time for what could have been conducted via videoconferencing. Attorneys with disabilities also report the difficulty that short, in-person appearances cause them compared to videoconferencing.
At the Young Lawyers Division Board meeting, an attorney told me that she no longer accepts court appointments for public defender cases in some areas where courts no longer allow videoconferencing. It was efficient and cost effective for her to do these cases from a distance and not have to go to court except for contested hearings, but judges now require that she appear in person for all hearings.
There are too few attorneys in many Wisconsin counties, especially smaller or rural counties. There also are not enough lawyers willing to take public defender appointments. Thus, anything the court system can do to encourage lawyers to take these cases and do so efficiently improves the system and access to justice.
Videoconferencing increases access to justice: more lawyers can take criminal-case appointments if they don’t have to travel to every hearing, attorneys in civil cases can charge their clients less for a short appearance, and clients need not take off work for a half-day or a full day for a short hearing. I have heard anecdotally that more parties appeared and there were fewer defaults when we were 100% videoconferencing. Having clients present for hearings is the best result for the court system.
Appearing in person also has advantages. More work might get done, most people can read each other’s expressions and body language better in person than on a videoconference, and behind-the-scenes discussions that lead to settlement can be beneficial. However, these potential benefits should be balanced against the factors mentioned above that weigh in favor of allowing attorneys to appear by videoconference for short, nonevidentiary hearings.
I believe that using videoconferences for short matters is an access-to-justice issue. I hope that litigants and courts will use videoconferences as the default to facilitate cases and enable parties to appear virtually for short hearings.
» Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 4 (November 2022).