The pandemic has halted many activities, including in-person classes, seminars and conferences, concerts and festivals, weddings, and a lot more. The virus, scientists found, spreads from person-to-person via exposure to contaminated droplets and aerosols ejected into the air, especially in indoor settings, by an infected individual. As a result, the public is being made to wear face masks, urged to physically distance from strangers, and stay home as much as possible.
However, because of the internet, important work can commence. Despite the pandemic, court hearings are still being held, but most happen online via Zoom.
You might have heard about the lawyer who appeared as a cat during a hearing in Texas. He had a filter on, and he struggled to turn it off during the very important and serious meeting which also included a judge and another lawyer.
The court hearings happening in the past year are not as funny. They are still very formal, but the video did give the rest of the public an idea of what goes on in virtual hearings during the pandemic.
Virtual Justice: What Happens in a Digital Court
This is not a new idea. The court has been conducting virtual hearings for years. However, before the pandemic, the hearing happens with the judge and the prosecutor inside a courtroom while the defendant and their attorney appear from a jail room. Nowadays, there is no required place where the participants can appear from. The judge can preside from their office, a prosecutor can conference from their kitchen, a lawyer can show up from their car, and so on.
Most courts have given priority to criminal cases where the defendant is already in custody where there are adequate tools for virtual hearings. Although most in-person hearings are suspended to follow distancing, it still happens in some states provided that safety precautions and health standards are observed by everyone in the room strictly. The rules vary in every state. Best to check what is permitted and what is not in your area.
During virtual hearings, court reporters or stenograhers are still around to record statements and events. However, they, too, are not allowed to be present in the courtroom. While they do not appear on video, they are still transcribing every word said during the conference.
Challenges of Virtual Court Hearings
Because most people are still trying to get used to the new process, expect awkwardness. There will be times when a participant would forget to unmute before speaking, or there will be another person speaking in the background. Sometimes, the internet connection will be bad, turning the video and the audio feed blurry and warbled.
Although very rare, virtual court hearings may also be vulnerable to a phenomenon called “Zoom Bombing.” In one proceeding in Canada, the screen was filled with hateful and pornographic images. Zoom Bombing is not permitted, and anyone who does it during a virtual court hearing will be found in contempt of the court. They will have to pay a fine or may even be jailed for their actions.
In addition, most jury trials have been postponed in the past year. Due to the requirements of the jury trial and the number of people who are involved in it, arranging a virtual hearing is a challenge. Some have conducted in-person jury trials, but in a much larger space where people can physically distance themselves.
The need to catch up on cases is forcing courts across the nation to plan virtual jury trials this year. The Western District of Washington is believed to be the first to hold virtual jury trials with success in September.
Will Virtual Court Hearing Persist in a Post-Pandemic World
Despite the challenges, there are benefits to having virtual court hearings. In fact, courts have been studying the addition of virtual hearings years before the pandemic.
A report published in 2017 revealed that virtual hearings will reduce the number of people coming to the court which means there will be fewer people going through security screening and small courtrooms would not be overwhelmed. Moreover, the travel time and expense of everyone involved will be significantly lowered.
Going digital might also solve the shortage of stenographers in the U.S. Courts may be able to outsource the task to people outside of their state. If the job becomes remote, it may boost interest among people who want to earn extra or want to work from home permanently.
COVID-19 has impacted the justice system, too. However, courts are trying to do all they can to ensure that cases will be handled in a timely manner while still following health standards.