Annual Meeting

Cellphone use in courthouses is an 'access-to-justice issue,' ABA House says

  • Print


Image from Shutterstock.

The ABA House of Delegates on Tuesday approved a resolution encouraging courts and bar associations to review their policies on the use and admittance of cellphones in courthouses.

Resolution 116, which passed overwhelmingly by delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, asks that these policies balance security risks posed by cellphone use with the needs of litigants, particularly those who represent themselves.

The Litigation Section, which sponsored the resolution, also opposes policies that unduly burden litigants or force litigants to leave their cellphones in locations outside of the courthouse that are unsecure or charge a storage fee.

Eileen Letts, the Litigation Section delegate to the House of Delegates, introduced the resolution, saying that it was “an access-to-justice issue.”

Pro se litigants often have evidence for their cases on their cellphones or use them to search online for legal information, Letts said. They may also need them to communicate with employers, coordinate transportation and handle child care issues.

Letts added that many litigants are unaware that cellphones are prohibited until they arrive at the courthouse.

“What if you arrive by public transportation?” she said. “Then what are you supposed to do?”

The possibility that cellphones may disrupt legal proceedings, contain firearms or trigger explosive devices and be used to threaten witnesses, jurors, prosecutors and other trial participants are the primary reasons they have been banned from courthouses, according to Palmer Gene Vance II, the chair of the Litigation Section, who drafted the report accompanying the resolution.

In 2017, the U.S. Office of the Courts Committee on Court Administration and Case Management provided federal judicial systems with guidance on developing cellphone policies, encouraging them to consider such factors as security, the media’s use of devices and processes for taking custody of devices.

The Virginia Supreme Court also recently issued a model policy that permits visitors to bring cellphones into the state’s circuit and district courts if they follow the rules implemented in each courthouse.

“In explaining the model policy, the Supreme Court cited the growing role of cellphones in everyday life, access to data and representation as compelling reasons to allow them,” Vance said in the report accompanying the resolution. “Those needs must be tempered with the potentials for abuse and security threats, the policy states.”

The ABA should also “endorse policies that address court administration concerns while promoting access to justice for all,” Vance wrote in the report.

Follow along with our coverage of the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.