By Donna Rogers, Editor
Remote appearances can be very attractive to busy judicial professionals. The convenience appeals to attorneys who may have court appearances in several courts on a given day, and would prefer to forego the hassle with traffic, parking and/or security queues. It appeals to judges who may be in remote parts of the country or dealing with disruptive offenders. It can even be used by litigants who may be at a distance or not willing to take a day off from work for a deposition, a brief hearing, arbitration, and/or mediation.
Travel is costly and with more and more demands being placed on courtroom budgets, tele/video conferencing is a solution that is helping to dramatically slash spending in this area, according to Iam Bennett, marketing director with Justice AV Solutions (JAVS), a company that offers recording systems and system integration. “This is a benefit that is realized by almost everyone involved in the judicial process. Should a litigant need to call an expert witness to testify, tele/video conferencing may provide access to someone who normally would be cost-prohibitive to have physically make an appearance in court.”
In 1995, the first turnkey Telephonic Court Appearance technology was developed by the company CourtCall. In the years since, it has expanded its reach to over 3,200 courts in 42 states. Numerous courts in California and the Los Angeles area connect with this service, along with extensive courts in the states of Florida, Illinois, Indiana and Texas, as well as those in Canada.
Through the years, a variety of other firms have come on board with teleconferencing solutions—both custom court systems and generic conferencing tools. Remote appearances are gaining a foothold in the courts as they realize the benefits of clearing dockets faster, limiting delays, easing case backlogs, lowering security requirements for inmates onsite, and even limiting their carbon footprint due to lower emissions from travel.
“Right now, we are seeing a high demand for systems that can be used in remote arraignment situations,” notes Bennett. And he says it is not only about money. “Although government entities are seeing a reduction in their transportation costs, we have found that both judges and officers have an added appreciation for the ability to provide inmates access to justice without the [security] risk of transportation to and from the courthouse.”
Remote appearance transmission channels occur via three communications schemes—telephonic, video and web. A report that describes each and is well worth taking a look at is the National Center for State Courts’ study Use of Telephonic and Video Conferencing Technology in Remote Court Appearances, a Supplemental Report to a State Justice Institute (SJI) published in June 2016. This report provides a summary review of current and emerging trends in technology for remote court appearances, and offers suggestions for courts currently using, or considering, remote appearance technology.
The Report highlights three primary types of solutions for remote appearances, which have substantially different models and pricing. These categories are: market niche vendor, Unified Communications Solutions providers, and hybrid audio/video conferencing vendors (see sidebar on page 33). Here will focus mainly on market niche vendors.
Niche vendors focus exclusively on full-service telephonic or video services for court appearances, court reporting, depositions or other legal matters, according to the Report. These vendors provide an end-to-end solution that makes the conferencing seamless, and often an easier route, for the court.
Some of the niche market vendors the study looked at are:
AppearByPhone/AppearByVideo, CourtCall, CourtRoom Connect, ATI (VCourt by streamWrite), Gore Brothers and LiveDeposition (By MegaMeeting). AppearByPhone, for example, is set up in a way in which the vendor has a representative that schedules the call and collects the payment. The payment can be done either through invoice or credit card. The service allows attorneys to appear in court without being physically there for routine, non-evidentiary, pre-trial appearances without disrupting the business of the court, the company notes.
AppearByPhone states: We have a system of call queuing and operators that place the caller in front of the judge. The user can use a standard speaker phone on a landline, though VOIP lines are not recommended due to static they may emit (cell phones are prohibited), and no special software is needed. Our operators stand by during the call, if a judge allows you to have a private conference we can arrange a sidebar call so that you may communicate privately with the judge and come back into the main call.
AppearByPhone offers dedicated operator-assisted calls or automated calls for all sessions. The firm sends faxed or emailed confirmations and follow-ups for all calls. They call the client to make use as easy as possible, though the option of the customer calling in is an option as well.
In 2014, AppearBy, LLC announced its newest offering AppearByVideo, which provides remote video appearance. It requires no special software, just a computer, a web browser and a broadband Internet connection.
In order to add an enhanced layer of functionality to teleconferencing, several niche vendors have recently announced a partnership to bring a new solution to courts. The collaboration consists of the Sonexis conference engine—the ConferenceManager2—and its dashboard interface tool, which allows for facilitating remote court appearances with a front end application called VCourt.
VCourt is one of several Justice Portals powered by streamWrite, an ATI Connect company. VCourt allows for case lookups, registering for appearances/events, and payment processing. Partner ATI Connect also acts as the professional services arm and provides the channel sales for VCourt and Sonexis.
Patrick Bahar, senior account executive with ATI Connect, notes that prior to 2014, courts had limited options for telephonic appearances, which placed reliance on an outside vendor for registering participants, taking payments and coordinating and moderating calls. With the inception of VCourt, courts now have a way to automate and host the telephonic appearance process, while having greater control and at the same time putting funds back into their budgets. With classic type remote appearance systems, he relates, “There is typically little financial benefit to the court.”
The genesis of the VCourt solution began back in 2014 when ATI Connect co-developed a solution with a court in California. Instead of relying on an outside vendor, it was designed so that the court could seamlessly integrate and automate a telephonic appearance solution within the court’s environment.
This new collaboration works in the following way. VCourt permits case parties and attorneys to make virtual court appearances by telephone (not video), and allows court staff to easily manage those virtual appearances on Sonexis’ user-friendly Operator Console interface. Users can go online as an attorney or a party to the case to sign up for a telephonic event. After they select their case, they are prompted to enter payment in the form of a credit card, and are then given a transaction ID including conference ID and PIN.
“Registration is integrated with a court’s website,” says Bahar. We build the interface for participants to register and pay for appearances, he explains. VCourt provides registration and cancellation of telephonic appearances via the court's website and leverages the court's case management system and payment processor. VCourt produces daily reports for each courtroom, so hosts can see what is scheduled, as well as other administrative functions. It then sends out an email confirmation and a receipt with instructions, data and time and secure PIN. Finally, it sends out reminder notices.
During the live proceeding, VCourt provides a comprehensive session dashboard to enable court clerks to play host to the telephonic session; they can easily identify participants (when each is speaking their name is highlighted in green), mute them, disconnect them or allow them private sessions with judge or other parties.
“Using this tool a dedicated moderator can manage multiple active virtual court rooms at a time—muting noisy lines, tending to participants who remotely ‘raise their hand’ for acknowledgement, etc.—as well as facilitate the transition between cases—privately prompting lines who are next on the docket and more,” according to the Sonexis web page. The calls can also be recorded at will.
“The host in each courtroom has ultimate control over participants, it’s not managed by an operator in a call center somewhere,” Bahar points out. “That they have complete control is a big part of the value here,” adds Robert Haley, director of marketing, with Compunetix, Inc., the parent company of Sonexis. Working through a service provider will cede some control, Haley notes. “This is a court employee, a person aware of the call, who is much closer to the actual event and knows who’s on the call.”
In summary, Haley points out “the front end is the beauty” of the solution because all data from throughout the court system is fed to the ConferenceManager, and is comprehensively displayed so the host can easily manage it.
VCourt is offered as a cloud-based system or premise-based system integrated with the court’s phones depending on what the user prefers. Another important point, the system is reported to pay for itself quickly as the attorneys and litigants pay for their sessions. Fees vary depending on state. In California, for example, the fee charged to each party is $86 for billable case types, notes Bahar. “The court is able to keep the lion’s share of that,” and court customers relay that “return on investment is often six months or less.”
Selecting an Apt System
Every court’s needs are different, and Bennett of JAVS has seen different solutions work for different courts.
“Many people are familiar with software-based conferencing solutions like Skype, Webex, GoToMeeting, etc., and others might also have a familiarity with the hardware-based offerings from providers like Polycom and Cisco,” he says.
“While these are all viable options, there are potential advantages and disadvantages to every setup. The challenges arise when courtrooms and prisons start to work through not only their needs, but how a potential system might be integrated with existing AV technology, what additional hardware is needed, how will the system be maintained, etc.
“Challenging questions must be answered, and these answers will help shape the type of system needed,” Bennett states. Some of the questions they might ask themselves are: “Will conversations be strictly 1-to-1 or will there be a need for multiple participants? Can the solution be integrated with existing microphones, public address systems, cameras, televisions, assistive listening, or digital recording equipment?”
Bennett observes that choosing a system can be very confusing. “That is where AV integration partners like JAVS come in. We help ask the right questions so that clients can fully assess their needs. We then work directly with them to design, install, and maintain a system that rises to their challenges.”
Why use remote appearance? Many observe that it is simple and convenient and saves time, stress, and money, while overcoming potential occurrence of violent outburst from offenders.
The ease and convenience of a turnkey solution, however, comes with considerable cost for the litigants, cautions the NCSC Report. For example, a single video appearance with a vendor such as CourtCall averages $96 ($86 audio + 10 for video). A live CourtCall operator prepares a calendar for that day’s litigants, and the operator will connect the judge and litigant and handle adding/dropping parties.
The Report states: This fee is not considered a filing fee and is set contractually at $86 plus a $10 service fee, $20 of which typically goes to a trial court fund (though prices in other jurisdictions range from $59 to +$120). CourtCall provides any equipment required to use its platform at no cost to the court and court staff receive a brief training. Lawyers and litigants pay for the service. “More likely,” notes the Report, “is that the cost is passed from lawyer to litigant as an expense charge. Therefore, with no cost to courts and a pass-through cost for attorneys the cost of this system for the courts is paid entirely by the litigants. For self-represented indigent litigants this option, that could actually provide greater access, is cost prohibitive.”
So, in the end, is telephonic/video appearance limiting, or is it more inclusive?
Haley sees the ability to communicate in these ways as giving broader communications access to more people. “Some of these technologies don’t need special equipment,” he says. “It allows us to connect anywhere and anytime. It lowers the barriers to communication…[and] ultimately it will democratize that kind of communication.
“I absolutely see these kinds of technologies in the court system,” he continues. “The next iteration of communications in court is use of video. I can see the WebRTC technology to deliver the video directly in the browser window as the evolution in this industry.”
Bahar of ATI concurs. “We are already seeing some demand for video arraignments and appearances in the court system. It is in our future plans. It is driven by market demand and we are seeing more and more demand. It is really just a matter of time.” CT