Los Angeles County’s Journey to the Hybrid Courtroom
The “courtroom” became a more flexible concept during the pandemic, with audiences becoming virtual and hybrid. The latter model brings together both in-person and remote participants and should ensure that people connecting from smartphones at home and groups joining from often acoustically unfriendly courtrooms can all see and hear each other.
It takes a lot of work to make these mixed experiences run smoothly, beyond just handing the judges laptops and accounts with video conferencing services. The hearings themselves are the most visible piece of the puzzle, but much more preparatory and behind-the-scenes effort allows everyone to safely and smoothly connect, share evidence and more, said Snorri Ogata, CIO of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. .
“Hybrid audiences aren’t just about setting up cameras and letting people talk,” Ogata said. “There is a whole system around it.
At the recent 2021 National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Courts Technology Conference, he shared the Los Angeles County journey of outfitting courtrooms for hybrid sessions, trying out platforms for internal and commercial conferences and responding to unforeseen equity issues.
TAILOR-MADE COURT PLATFORM
Los Angeles County first started some types of trials on a custom video conferencing system, done in partnership with a vendor. The bespoke platform allowed the court to design functionality around unique forensic requirements. For example, the judges had to be able to easily manage what could be dozens of participants. The features that allow judges to mute members without their permission may seem small, but have proven to make a big difference, preventing hearings from being disrupted if someone struggles to figure out how to mute.
The court system also sent individuals automated reminders regarding their upcoming hearings and asked them to authenticate with a unique court ID and PINs, helping judges be certain who joined, according to Ogata and Sherri Carter. , executive director of the LA County Superior Court.
It also allows judges to view more useful details about users. The screens of trading platforms often display the phone numbers, rather than the names, of people who log in by calling. But Ogata said it was important for judges to be able to quickly find out the person’s name, their role in the proceedings and the associated case number. The integration of a platform into the court’s case management system achieved this level of detail.
But despite all of these features, the county’s custom system failed, with courts finding the audio and video quality suffered by the high volume of use, Ogata said.
“[We] had this really wonderful, highly personalized ability that unfortunately couldn’t handle packet loss and jitter and couldn’t handle a scale of 5,000 participants per day, ”Ogata said.
This led to a move to a business solution that could better cope with high traffic and was already familiar to many users, reducing the need for training.
This change has not been smooth; custom features had to be given up and left the court caught off guard when the company upgrades its software to change the functionality, impacting the training the court has to offer.
“When you have 585 courtrooms and all the employees who support them, you need to have advance notice, training, coordination and communication, and sometimes notification to unions of this. that’s going to change, ”Carter said.
Ogata said the team is now looking to blend the two approaches, working with the APIs that underpin the business platform to modify it and add court-specific functionality and new capabilities.
INSIDE THE PHYSICAL ROOM
Running the hybrid means not only getting the right software, but also the courtroom hardware so everyone at home and in person can see and hear each other.
Ogata said courts have faced a myriad of practical issues, from figuring out where to add cameras so everyone can see who’s talking to finding the least echoing method of capturing room audio. hearing (digital signal processing – or DSP – microphones, has proven useful).
The resulting equipment setups also led to cables snaking all over the courtroom, creating trip hazards, Ogata said. The team eventually found a supplier who could install modular flooring that wraps around the wiring, keeping it hidden below foot level.
PREPARATION FOR TRIAL
A lot of work also had to be done to prepare the participants for the hybrid sessions.
Lawyers who no longer went to the courthouse to retrieve files needed digital means to access them, and attendees needed to be trained in videoconferencing technology. Ogata said the county had disseminated training material advising best practices – like encouraging the wearing of wired headsets rather than relying on laptop microphones – and offered regular time slots during which judges and judges lawyers could play and test the video conferencing platform, while staff were on hand virtually to answer questions.
Once lawyers were comfortable, they also taught their clients how to use the technology.
IMPACTS ON EQUITY
As they charted technological transformations, Ogata and Carter became aware of the nuances of hardware and software configurations that can have a particular impact on people with translation needs or hearing difficulties.
Courtroom cameras need to capture the faces of speakers to help lip-reading participants, for example. Deaf and hard of hearing people also need video conferencing platforms to enable pinning ASL interpreter videos so that they always appear on the first page of the screen, a capability that Carter says will be added. in the future. Rather, many platforms are designed to prioritize the display of whoever is speaking aloud, and may skip other participants – such as interpreters – off the screen.
Courts also need to be sensitive to the comfort and access of different participants to the technology, but so far have not found the lack of access to devices to be a problem for participants. Most residents own smartphones, Carter said, and they can also visit a library or the courthouse on on-site devices or log in from a regular landline.
However, the widespread possession of smartphones by residents has not resulted in a strong preference for using video in remote hearings, Ogata said. Results looking at trends from September 2020 to August 2021 showed that over 50% of remote participants chose to connect to audiences with audio only.
This trend may, however, demonstrate a need for low-cost as well as low-tech services: LA County initially funded its adoption of the technology by charging attendees a membership fee, with video costing more than video. audio, Carter said. (Fee waivers were also available, she said). The county saw the video usage rate increase after the two prices were equalized. One-time pandemic relief funds now allow the court to offer free remote hearings, starting in early September 2021.