Florida State Courts System Expands Access to Justice Through “Courts as a Service” Approach
Discover how the Florida State Courts System used Zoom to strengthen judicial operations.
Location: Florida, USA
Industry: State and local government
Challenges: Needing to scale rapidly to support cross-team collaboration and the continuity of justice across the state of Florida
Solutions: Zoom Meetings, Zoom Rooms, Zoom Team Chat, and Zoom Webinars
Business benefits: Enhanced access to justice, operational efficiency, and employee connections
It allowed us to step back from looking at the court as a building to begin viewing the court as also a service.
Roosevelt Sawyer Jr.Chief Information Officer
Five district courts of appeal, 20 circuit courts, 67 county courts, and the Florida Supreme Court — that’s the scope for Florida’s Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA), the administrative arm of the Supreme Court in support of the Florida State Courts System.
OSCA’s size initially tasked Hetal Patel, OSCA information systems manager, with finding a solution that could enable effective collaboration across his dispersed IT team. Then, the need for that technology suddenly expanded, with Patel having to extend the Zoom platform across dozens of courts practically overnight due to the pandemic.
Now, over two years later, he and his colleagues reflect on how the experience strengthened the state’s judicial operations, expanded access to justice, and helped them refine what they call a “courts as a service” approach.
From online article to overnight adoption
Six to eight months before the pandemic started, Patel decided it was time to find a tool that would connect his IT teams across the state, and perhaps make his life a little easier. “I had been working with my team remotely and we used other video communications service providers. And even though they worked, I was looking for something easy, cloud-based, and cost-effective — where I didn’t have to type my meeting minutes, had better quality and user experience,” he said.
“So, as I was researching, I read an online article about the Zoom platform, and I went to [Roosevelt Sawyer Jr., OSCA’s chief information officer] and said, ‘I want to try this platform as an alternative way to conduct business.’”
Fast forward a few months, and Patel had to connect a lot more than his IT team. As they discussed how to enable continuity in the face of COVID-19, Patel and his team looked to trusted technology leadership for advice. “We spoke with a couple of CTOs about their platform of choice, as some were already considering [Zoom], and judges and staff also asked to use it to conduct remote hearings. That’s why we selected Zoom,” he noted.
Reflecting on the rapid transition, Patel added, “It was very interesting how I was using Zoom just for my team, and suddenly we were tasked with buying and deploying 1,700-plus statewide licenses.”
Patel couldn’t move quickly enough — many judges were eager to keep their dockets moving, serve the people, and maintain the judicial process, with some even “considering buying their own Zoom… [as] they wanted to use it yesterday,” he added.
Making the case for Zoom
Once Zoom was up and running, Patel prioritized robust employee training to enable successful adoption — he knew everyone wanted to do it right. This focus on training helped get judges and staff up to speed quickly and effectively, with many relying on a few key features and solutions to help them carry out justice:
- Personal Meeting ID (PMI): “They learned they have a personal meeting ID that they can distribute to judicial assistants or their case manager.”
- Scheduling recurring meetings: “Some hearings are scheduled, for example, every Thursday, so they learned how to set up recurring meetings.”
- Cloud recording: “The biggest hit was the cloud recording option — [court reporters] saw the benefit.”
- Meeting security: “They were trained on recommended security and operational guidelines for hosting or scheduling Zoom Meetings and how to strengthen security and privacy.”
- Integrations with audio and video hardware: “Some meetings we integrate with [that] technology. We’ve done some hybrid meetings where the judge is in the chamber using audio and video equipment to communicate, and others are dialing in remotely.”
- Zoom Webinars: “We started conducting oral arguments (OA) using Zoom Webinars because it comes with [unique] controls and it gives you a look and feel similar to the in-person, [Florida] Supreme Court.”
- Zoom Rooms: “Our Poly devices are integrated with Zoom Meetings and Zoom Rooms, and so quite a few circuits have a full digital experience — either remote or hybrid.”
Expanded access, better outcomes
“The judicial branch is different than private businesses or even other branches of government because people must come to our courthouses when they are summoned. You might say we offer people invitations they cannot refuse,” said Florida’s Chief Justice Charles Canady in public comments.
Virtual proceedings changed the way Florida’s citizens engage with the justice system, with Zoom’s accessibility enabling more efficient outcomes.
“Our courts — like Florida’s lawyers — have been through an extraordinarily challenging time during the pandemic. But despite the arduous circumstances…judges and lawyers throughout Florida have continued the work of justice. This was possible because Florida’s judges and lawyers quickly adapted to the use of the technology for remote proceedings,” Canady’s comments continued.
“In small claims or civil cases, since parties did not have to travel and attend procedures in person, the courts were able to schedule multiple cases back-to-back, with little time in between cases, using the virtual hearing setting. Removing travel costs worked in everyone’s favor and judges were able to adjudicate cases faster,” Patel said.
By transforming how people access hearings, the OSCA team also felt they evolved their approach to the larger judicial process. As Roosevelt Sawyer Jr., chief information officer, said, “It allowed us to step back from looking at the court as a building to begin viewing the court as also a service. Prior to the pandemic, you were going to a courthouse, but now residents of Florida are attending proceedings on their mobile phones, in their homes — they don’t physically have to go to the building for access to justice. We started to shift from being thought of, from the public perspective, as a building.”
A service-led approach
“Courts as a service” is now OSCA’s North Star. And more importantly, this approach ladders into what the judicial system is there to do. As Paul Flemming, public information officer, said, “Justice doesn’t happen at a courthouse, it happens with courts — the system we’re all a part of and the work of the judges. People are coming to courts for solutions, they’re not coming to courthouses for solutions. We want to be service-oriented.”
Whether they’re using the technology to provide virtual or hybrid services, connect more than 180 employees, run quarterly town halls, or bring together chief judges across the state, OSCA is “using Zoom every day in some capacity,” noted Sawyer.
In fact, Zoom has become so ingrained in Florida courts’ operations they have adopted best practices to reflect the prevalence of technology in proceedings. Outlining “what [people] need to do and be aware of,” these practices reflect, as Sawyer stated, “that Zoom is woven into our operations today.”
You can discover the ways judges and judicial partners have adapted these practices across Florida as “Lessons Learned” and featured in their newsletter. To learn more about using collaboration technology in today’s judicial system, check out our Future of Courts guide.