Virtual court is in session: How Tyler Technologies made remote municipal court visits possible during COVID-19 and beyond
Time to read: 5 minutes
When most people in the United States think of going to municipal court for things like traffic tickets, “easy” might not be their first thought about the process.
Navigating the court system can be difficult for many reasons—if people can’t get time off from work or other commitments, or are physically unable to appear in person, for instance.
For Product Manager Jonathan Lang and his team at Tyler Technologies, the leading software provider for the public sector in the U.S., the mission is helping municipal courts provide expanded access to justice, and create a more constituent-driven experience.
“We want to put more options in the citizens’ hands,” says Lang. “Online payments, online courses, text notifications, automated call systems—let’s put all of that in people’s hands so they can take care of things without having to go into court, take off work, find childcare, drive across town, pay for parking, and all of that. Let’s make it convenient.”
Lang’s team had been developing a new virtual option to add to the company’s already robust municipal court case management suite when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States, accelerating the product’s release.
With help from Twilio-powered messaging, voice, chat, and video services, the team was able to bring the product to market at a critical time. It’s proven instrumental for courts and constituents alike in a time of shelter-at-home and quarantine protocols.
The journey to Tyler Technologies’ Virtual Court offering and improving access to justice
Texas-based Tyler Technologies has a long history of innovation for government. Founded in 1966, the organization works across every level of government to facilitate tools to do everything from routing school buses to running police departments to balancing budgets—while providing the kind of technology-forward experience constituents have come to expect from all services.
In April 2019 when Lang’s team debuted the Tyler Virtual Court concept at the company’s user conference, it was the logical next step—a platform for the many services and features Tyler Technologies already offered to municipal courts, including payment systems, appointment reminders, online courses, and more.
The team couldn’t know the COVID-19 pandemic was a year away, but they knew moving toward a platform like Tyler Virtual Court represented savings and efficiency for courts, and ease-of-access and -use for citizens.
“For the past few years, we’ve been focusing on case resolution over case management because the longer a ticket lives in the court system, the more expensive it is to resolve. It costs the courts time and resources, and it costs the defendants significantly more in added fees,” says Lang. “So we’ve employed every way we can possibly think of to enable our clients to reach out to citizens. Sending an email with a copy of the document, providing e-filing solutions instead of mail, text notifications to remind them of court dates or next steps, to [Interactive Voice Response (IVR)] systems with automated voicemails and phone calls, and online portals for people to easily take care of their business.”
As Lang points out, in an online portal, “it doesn’t matter what time it is or what the court’s hours are.” And with more channels, options, and automated systems, courts can resolve the majority of cases more quickly, leaving time for cases that need more attention.
Constituent-centric engagement and the municipal court system—powered by Twilio
Easy, reliable communication between courts and citizens forms the backbone of Tyler Technologies’ court-related offerings.
For Tyler Virtual Court, Twilio Programmable Messaging, Voice, and Chat APIs help power appointment reminders, the IVR system, and other functions; while Twilio Programmable Video makes the key virtual sessions possible for arraignments, hearings, and other previously in-person requirements. Additionally, Tyler Technologies uses Twilio SendGrid to send email invitations prior to sessions and summary emails afterward.
“For each new area we approached, it’s been really, really easy to uptake the tools within that API and be able to build something out,” says Lang.
He recalls in February 2019 when they first set the goal of taking a working prototype of Tyler Virtual Court at the company’s user conference in April 2019. “That’s two short months,” he says. “But with Twilio’s API we were able to stand up a working prototype that wasn’t slideware. It was a working prototype we could put in front of a few users and say, ‘This is an idea we’d like to develop.’ The video worked, the chat worked, and we were able to get real time feedback from clients who said, ‘I think you’re onto something here.’ ”
The innovative concept combined with the working Twilio-powered prototype empowered Lang’s team to secure five clients from the conference to participate in initial testing immediately.
“We were able to really rapidly develop and focus, and Twilio provided a really clear path to enabling the conversation we needed to have in Tyler Virtual Court,” Lang says. “We were able to leverage that and get to [product feature] resolution without having to worry about learning everything Twilio already knows how to do.”
Building quickly on Twilio APIs also allowed Lang’s team to prepare for scale.
“We’ve been able to ramp up and get more clients up and running. The backend has been reliable, and we’ve been able to support all the video screens to be able to facilitate virtual hearings, etc. It’s been really solid from that side.”
Their preparation played a key role in being able to accelerate Tyler Virtual Court’s rollout when the COVID-19 global pandemic came to the United States in early 2020.
“Going to court” in the time of COVID-19
In March 2020, it had been almost a year since Tyler Technologies and Lang’s team debuted the concept of their Tyler Virtual Court platform for municipal courts at the company’s user conference. They were planning to unveil the live product later that year at the same conference when the court environment began to change very quickly.
“I would say mid-March is when it really hit,” says Lang, recalling when everyone at Tyler Technologies was instructed to work from home for safety and when the conference itself was canceled. “We really looked at the situation and how it was escalating. We still had six more weeks before we were planning to launch, but we said, ‘We’re actually in position to accelerate that. We need to help our clients get through this situation.’ So that’s what we did. We shifted our resources and went live with it.”
As of May 2020, 21 courts are running live sessions with citizens on Tyler Virtual Court, with dozens more working through the process. The main challenge, says Lang, has been the disruption for the courts as well. “All our courts are working from home too. They’re working strange hours and they’re distracted, and they’re also trying to just keep the wheels on their organization,” he says. “But they’re saying ‘I can’t afford not to do this, because it will save me time.’ ”
The response from the courts who are up and running has been positive, says Lang, noting that courts love Tyler Virtual Court’s consolidation of many different services. “They jumped straight in and said, ‘This is so much easier than what we were doing on our own.’ Because what we saw in the marketplace is a lot of people were cobbling together different solutions on their own. They’d find a conference vendor, they’d figure out some way to share documents separately, they were scheduling people by hand, having sessions one video call at a time—and Tyler Virtual Court is made to make it all streamlined.”
More than a trend: the future of courts and public sector software
As with many sectors, the public sector experienced COVID-19 accelerating existing movements toward digitization, remote options, and engaging with people on their preferred and convenient channels.
Products like Tyler Virtual Court will enable more access to justice while moving courts forward. “People need their job, they need their car, they need to keep their license—so they need to take care of the court ticket without taking time off, they need to have those options,” Lang says.
Lang adds that there will continue to be an ongoing need to provide this type of functionality; this type of interaction with citizens; and alternate ways for citizens to resolve their business with the city, state, or county.
“We were able to really rapidly develop and focus, and Twilio provided a really clear path to enabling the conversation we needed to have in Tyler Virtual Court. We were able to leverage that and get to [product feature] resolution without having to worry about learning everything Twilio already knows how to do.”