This research examines the comparative advantages of online versus in-person appearances in sensitive cases for vulnerable litigants (Self-Represented Ls).
Research to understand the effect of widespread remote justice necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic is scant, and particularly scant in the area of family law. What we know thus far, from two articles, both with severe methodological limits, is that litigants believed that online hearings hindered procedural justice as compared to in-person hearings. But litigants believed online proceedings improved their ability to attend hearings as compared to in-person proceedings. No studies assessed how remote appearances affected case outcomes. Within the context of these studies, issues of civility and safety are not addressed either. Neither study deployed a credible research design.
On a related front, research using sampling and qualitative analysis has attempted to understand the effects of different types of custody orders on children. Most of these studies occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, after a movement away from a presumption of primary or sole maternal custody.2 As such, arguably, we may have some knowledge of the preferred arrangement for children.
2 See, Robert Bauserman, Child Adjustment in Joint-Custody versus Sole-Custody Arrangements: A Meta-Analytic Review, 16(1) J. of Fam. Psych. 91 (2002) (analyzing 21 studies).
But we do not know how methods of conducting hearings, which constitute the key decision points in the judicial process, affect or inhibit courts’ capacity to order preferred arrangements. It is easy to suspect that parental poverty poses challenges to reaching optimal court decisions. Perhaps online proceedings, which may lessen the formidable mental bandwidth, scheduling, and organizational challenges low-income parents face, are a partial solution. But, if we believe remote appearances hinder procedural justice, will the outcomes resulting from a more organized, more accessible hearing still be meaningful if litigants do not feel heard, and if that dissatisfaction translates to dissatisfaction with their orders? Again, we do not know, and we need to in order to promote better outcomes for families.
What We’ll Learn:
This research will contribute two perspectives. It will examine whether SRLs in family court proceedings uniquely suffer when asked to participate in remote proceedings. It will also investigate whether online proceedings worsen, improve, or merely replicate the problems of in- person hearings with particular focus on issues of procedural justice, civility, and litigant safety.
We partner with the Commissioners and the Self-Help Center of the Third District Court in Salt Lake County, Utah to field the operation. We conduct the evaluation in consultation with Emily LaGratta of LaGratta Consulting, LLC.
 Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Observing Online courts: Lessons from the Pandemic, 54 Fam. Law. Q., 181, 198-199 (2020); Lynda B. Munro & Nicole M. Riel, Our Virtual Reality: Facing the Constitutional Dimensions of Virtual Family Court, 54 Fam. Law. Q., 245, 261 (2020).