Professors Jason Mazzone and Robin Fretwell Wilson are leading a large-scale research project on COVID-19 and Access to Justice. Their focus is on how changes to court operations since March of 2020 have impacted case processing, case outcomes, and the ability of individuals to access the legal system.
Mazzone and Wilson recently penned an op-ed in The Hill, where they discuss one of the issues that their work has identified - when court proceedings move online, digital divides exacerbate problems of access to justice.
The project has several phases. In the fall, they ran two dozen focus groups in Illinois, South Carolina, and Ohio with 130 judges, lawyers, litigants, jurors, and court staff to hear about their experiences with the judicial system. They then designed and have launched a national survey that is being distributed with the help of dozens of cooperating legal organizations around the country. They have also created (and will soon activate) geofences around 50 individual courthouses—a novel research strategy that will allow them to contact individuals entering and leaving a courthouse and ask them about their experiences.
The project was initially conceived as an effort to understand court operations during the pandemic and as generating lessons for other emergencies. But the work has turned out to have much broader relevance because there is strong interest—especially among judges—in making permanent some of the changes that the pandemic required courts to adopt (e.g., routine online hearings).
The project is sponsored by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, the Program in Constitutional Theory, History, and Law, the National Center for State Courts, and the University of South Carolina School of Law. Substantial assistance has also been provided by a team at the Pew Research Center and the Illinois Supreme Court. Andrea Miller (Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology and a Senior Court Research Associate at the National Center for State Courts), Brian Gaines (Political Science), and Tommy Crocker (University of South Carolina) are members of the research team, as well as five research assistants.
Moving forward, Mazzone and Wilson plan to leverage the research to address some practical needs. They are now applying for funding for a program designed to generate—with the help of experts and stakeholders—mechanisms that ensure individuals have the tools to participate meaningfully in virtual court.
Lawyers, judges, litigants and others with experience with the judicial system during the COVID-19 pandemic are invited to share their experiences.
Read the full op-ed at thehill.com.
Note: The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Illinois College of Law.