On October 6, 2022, IAALS co-hosted the eighth session of the Redesigning Legal Speaker Series, which dove into the innovative and creative changes judges have applied to make courts more accessible. “Redesigning Legal: Improving Access to Courts and Judges” featured a panel including Judge Jeanne Robison, Salt Lake City Justice Court, Utah; and Judge Scott Schlegel, 24th Judicial District, Louisiana. Their conversation was moderated by David Slayton, Vice President of Court Consulting Services for the National Center for State Courts.

Video of the event is available below, and a video with transcript is available here.

A lack of access to courts and judges is prevalent throughout the United States—one of the reasons being the challenge of getting individuals into courtrooms. In that vein, Judge Jeanne Robison kicked off the discussion by introducing “Kayak Court,” an innovative program she seasonally facilitates to help the underserved homeless population in their community:

“We have a large population of unsheltered people who camp along the Jordan River and Urban River that runs to the west side of Salt Lake City. We began holding court by bike and by boat on the river to access those individuals.” 

Judge Robison explained that the main goal of Kayak Court is to address cases in a way to help remove barriers and transition individuals out of homelessness. While they do not conduct trials on the rivers, they can help with any outstanding court cases such as recalling warrants and resolving minor cases that would result in a sentence like community service. “One gentleman that we had seen on the river told us that we saved his life,” Judge Robison shared.

Kayak Court is not the only innovative approach Judge Robison has applied to her courts. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Judge Robison and many others to acknowledge that courts could not continue doing things the way they had. The pandemic allowed her to look at new and diverse ways to provide access to the community. She began utilizing modern technology to put her courts online, removing many barriers such as transportation and time issues. Judge Scott Schlegel also noted that by putting courts online, they too were able to better assist their communities.

David Slayton pointed out that, prior to the pandemic, the default rate of appearance failures in court was as high as 80 percent. However, by giving people the ability to appear in court in whatever way best suits them—whether this be remotely or in person—has resulted in an immense drop in this percentage. Judge Schlegel supports Slayton’s statistics by recalling what he has seen in his own courtroom with the help of online calendaring and reminders via text and emails. He also notes that he has plenty of stories highlighting how giving people the opportunity to choose makes them feel listened to.

“You got to show people that you care about them by caring about their time, so that when they actually come in front of you, they can actually hear what you’re saying and absorb it. If they’re angry, upset, and just missed work, there’s nothing that you are saying to them that they can hear and absorb . . . they’re leaving out of there angrier than when they came in, and there’s no trust being built to help them work through their issues so that they are no more victims.” 

Although Judge Schlegel said that online calendaring is “the greatest bang for your buck” regarding the justice system, there are some who do not agree, believing “that the experience must take place in the courtroom.” But even while courtrooms are necessary, he notes that “the building is only part of the process.” Both he and Judge Robison contend that there is not a real difference between the virtual and in-person courtrooms because expectations are set the same for both, and people will be held accountable if they decide not to meet those expectations. “At the end of the day, it is court,” Judge Schlegel reiterated.

To conclude the panel’s discussion, Slayton asked what advice Judge Schlegel and Judge Robison would give to other judges and court representatives who are trying to improve their community’s access to the courts. They both emphasized the importance of technology to share information with others, as well as the importance of building partnerships and understanding the court’s workflow. 

We are so grateful to Judge Jeanne Robison and Judge Scott Schlegel for their insights, and to David Slayton for moderating their inspiring conversation. We hope you’ll join us for the next session in the Redesigning Legal Speaker Series, which will be held in December.