West Virginia recently announced a new effort to use technology to make its appellate Court system more accessible.
On July 1, West Virginia will launch an intermediate appeals court that is a step below its Supreme Court. The Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) is authorized to hear appeals from family courts, civil cases from lower courts, guardianship appeals, and workers comp appeals among other things. The ICA will consist of three judges. The initial 3 judges were appointed by the Governor; in the future, judges will be elected on a staggered basis.The ICA’s headquarters and clerk’s office will be in Charleston. The three-judge panel will sit in Charleston.
All that’s not necessarily newsworthy. What is newsworthy is how the state is trying to make appeals to the ICA more user-friendly and accessible.
The state plans to equip five geographically diverse courthouses in the state with the requisite video and audio equipment to allow the ICA and justices to hear all appeals virtually. By doing so, litigants can participate in their appeals without being put to the expense and disruption of travel. According to the Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, as quoted in a recent article appearing in the Bar Association’s Spring 2022 edition of The West Virginia Lawyer (Keeping Courts Accessible, by West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Hutchison), the courthouses were selected so that no litigant will have to travel more than 90 minutes to participate in an appellate hearing.
To insure appropriate decorum, each courthouse will have a dedicated ICA courtroom with a bailiff and staff employee. The courtrooms will be equipped with a secure, professionally installed closed-circuit system. And by setting up spaces that are designed solely to be used to conduct hearings remotely, you eliminate the problem I previously discussed of trying to squeeze hybrid hearings into spaces that were designed solely for in-person participation.
Not stopping there, West Virginia has also initiated a statewide project to provide a hybrid court environment for all courts so that participants can either appear in person or remotely.
It’s a creative and good use of technology to improve access to justice for all
As I have previously discussed, let’s face it, for most people (even lawyers) going to court can be a pain. There’s the travel and disruption not to mention the expense. So, kudos to West Virginia for coming up with these initiatives. The ICA will make the process more accessible to all participants without sacrificing decorum. And it will also do without placing those with poor internet access or less than ideal facilities at a disadvantage. It’s a creative and good use of technology to improve access to justice for all.
As Jordan Furlong recently so perceptively put it, we have to start thinking of our justice system as a service, not a place. A service instead of a place where everyone has to be “in the same place at the same time.” West Virginia has done just that. It takes seriously its Constitutional mandate to keep courts open and administer justice without delay.