Pa.’s pandemic experiment in virtual courts yielded mixed results | Thursday Morning Coffee

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts offers three recommendations for improvements

March 17, 2022 7:03 am

(Image AdobeStock via The Philadelphia Gay News)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Before the pandemic brought life as we know it to a screeching halt in 2020, a woman who found herself embroiled in a family court case in Philadelphia drove hundreds of miles, several times a year, from her home outside of Pennsylvania to see the wheels of justice turn.

The woman, who shared her story with researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts, says she spent about $500 on each trip as her custody and child support case ground its way through the court system.

“[It] was really killing funds that could have been saved and used in some other way,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, told Pew.

When the court system went virtual during lockdown, the woman told Pew that she saw immediate benefit: No more missed work, no more pulling her kids out of school, and, critically, she and her children no longer had to be in the same room as their abuser.

“[N]ot having to physically be in the courtroom with [him] has been the greatest thing … and the most impactful thing,” she told Pew.

In a report released last DecemberPew researchers examined the changes that gripped the court system as hearings for the civil legal system went virtual, and whether those changes made it easier for people to navigate the often labyrinthine civil justice system.

The bottom line? The civil court system largely “leveraged technology not only to stay open, but also to improve participation rates and help users resolve disputes more efficiently,” Pew researchers concluded.

With Pennsylvania courts resuming in-person operations more fully as the pandemic apparently winds down, advocates who have spent the last two years living with the seismic changes say there’s still room for improvement.

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

Allowing people to “remotely file for [protective orders] is very successful in many other locations and was working well during the closure,” Leslie Allen, an attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, told Pew.

“For family safety, this option helps stop violence and saves lives,” Allen told Pew, noting that Philadelphia Family Court has all but ended remote filings and virtual hearings.

“The professional community, and much of the court, agree that this was a huge missed opportunity to create longer-term, positive change,” Allen told Pew.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott told Pew that the courts’ statewide embrace of technology varies across the commonwealth’s 67 counties. But the system must continue to make them available because more people are showing up for virtual court, she told Pew.

“The number of individuals attending these proceedings remotely has double and tripled, and, on several occasions, [virtual court] has provided a more complete picture of the individual,” McDermott, who also sat on the state’s remote proceedings task force, told Pew.

“Participants have frequently thanked the court for the opportunity to have their voices heard, commenting that they could not have afforded to come to court in the past for a variety of reasons—including finances, inability to miss work, health concerns, lack of child care, or their role in elder care,” McDermott told Pew.

(Image via

The new Pew report makes three recommendations for the administration of digital civil justice in the nation’s fifth-most populous state.

The courts should:

  • “Combine technological tools with process improvements to facilitate resolution of legal problems.
  • “Test new tools before adopting them and incorporate feedback from intended users,” and
  • “Collect and analyze data to help guide decisions on the use and performance of the tools,” Pew researchers recommended.

Doing so would allow the courts to “build on the progress already made in implementing technology and modernizing operations,” Pew’s researchers wrote.

And for another Philadelphia woman who’s now concerned about seeing her abuser in person again, virtual court should be “an option all of the time … [N]ot just because of the pandemic,” she told Pew.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld the commonwealth’s new legislative maps, locking in a new district lines for the next decade, Stephen Caruso reports.

A top legislative Republican is already facing attacks and a likely primary opponent for not being conservative enoughStephen Caruso reports.

Deep in Bedford County, Pennsylvania officials announced they’d protected the state’s 19th old-growth forestCassie Miller reports.

In most of Pennsylvania, autopsy reports for those who die in jail are public. But not Philadelphia & Allegheny CountyBrittany Hailer, of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism writes, as we wrap up a three-part series this week.

In an extraordinary virtual address to Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invoked the Pearl Harbor attacks ahead of World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while urging the United States to do more to stop the Russian war against his country. Capital-Star Washington Reporters Jennifer Shutt and Jacob Fischler have the details.

An event at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Friday aims to connect high school students to HBCUs, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

The GOP can’t have it both ways. If they’re going to attack Putin’s war on facts, they have to step up and stop the one at home, I write in a new column.

On our Commentary Page this morning: Early childhood education is life-changing. We need to support those who teach it, a Harrisburg educator and advocate writes. And Vladimir Putin’s brazen manipulation of language is a perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak, a Wayne State University scholar writes.

En la Estrella-Capital:Aumenta la presión para detener la política de la era Trump que expulsa a los migrantes en la frontera. Y von el financiamiento de COVID estancado en el Congreso, la Casa Blanca lanza alarmas sobre el déficit.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, known best for hosting the “Dr. Oz Show” (Photo provided)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz said he’d renounce his dual U.S./Turkish citizenship if he’s elected to the U.S. Senate. The question had become an issue in the GOP primary, the Inquirer reports.

Masks will remain a fact of life in Pittsburgh city schools for at least a month longer, the Post-Gazette reports.

PennLive’s John Baer looks at the factors driving our spring of discontent.

A federal judge has thrown out Lehigh County voters’ lawsuit over uncounted mail-in ballots, the Morning Call reports.

Philadelphia’s historic sites will donate their proceeds this Saturday to help Ukrainian children, WHYY-FM reports.

Erie County Council has endorsed a proposed warship museum for Presque Isle Bay in Erie, GoErie reports.

City & State Pa. takes a look at the debate over what to do about Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage.

President Joe Biden is sending more aid to Ukraine, but some Republicans say that it’s not enoughRoll Call reports.

Former President Donald Trump says ex-Veep Mike Pence won’t be his running mate if he stages a 2024 comeback, Talking Points Memo reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On
10 a.m., Hearing Room 1 North Office Building: Senate Appropriations Committee (Pa. Historical & Museum Commission budget hearing)
2:30 p.m., Hearing Room 1 North Office Building: Senate Appropriations Committee (Budget Secretary/Pa. Dept. of General Services budget hearing).

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to our once (and future, I hope) NEPA Correspondent Patrick Abdalla, one of the true nice guys of Pa. journalism, who celebrates another trip around the sun today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s one that popped up yesterday afternoon, taking me entirely surprise. From the ‘Donnie Darko‘ soundtrack, it’s Gary Jules and Michael Andrews with their version of the Tears for Fears classic ‘Mad World.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
The Calgary Flames beat the visiting New Jersey Devils 6-3 in a late game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Wednesday night. The Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk had a goal and two assists on the way to the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.