During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many Pennsylvanians experienced disruptions in their access to lawyers and the courts at a time when many needed it the most. As a result, we have learned that the power of technology is key to maintaining the legal system and serving Pennsylvanians in need of legal services.
To ensure that Pennsylvania is prepared in the event of another public emergency, the Pennsylvania Bar Association brought together representatives from the legal community and the judicial system to form the Joint Task Force on Continuity of Delivery of Legal Services. Dozens of lawyers and judges spent the past nine months taking a hard look at the lessons learned during the pandemic and what improvements can be made now and for the future.
In the task force’s recently released report, many of the recommendations focus on strategic use of technology, making sure that the public has access to pertinent technology and that personnel have the proper training to use the technology.
At the beginning of the crisis, not all courts, government offices and law firms were prepared for the remote practice of law, remote court proceedings and other legal processes. While many courts and government offices in Pennsylvania have the technology to provide secure electronic filing and video capabilities, many still do not.
The report recommends that the Legislature, the courts, the organized bar and the general public work together to find a way to establish a uniform electronic case filing system for Pennsylvania. Electronically available records ensure continuous availability of access to documents essential to handling legal matters when physical access to courthouses or government offices is limited. Counties and filing offices that already had electronic filing and online access fared better during the pandemic than those without. While some other technology solutions may be as simple as more effective use of available resources, many other technology solutions will require budgetary changes at the state and county levels and may require federal participation to accomplish the necessary changes.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association intends to continue its work by monitoring changes in procedures, surveying the legal community to determine how procedures are working, studying the results of those efforts and making additional recommendations that may be needed to assure the continuity of delivery of legal services in a possible future state of emergency.
Our legal system and our constitutional right to due process are fundamental aspects of our national identity. It is in everyone’s best interest to be certain that all aspects of the judicial system are sufficiently funded and that the public has equal access to justice.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association is committed to working with all branches of government and legal organizations to put into place and to reinforce procedures that will allow seamless access to justice for the remainder of the pandemic and any future emergency.
David E. Schwager
President, Pennsylvania Bar Association