Thursday, April 23, 2020
Apparently a pandemic can’t stop justice from being served. Courts across the nation (and the world) are attempting virtual court in order to enable remote access to the justice system. Since the technology had to be adopted so quickly, its rollout has been far from perfect. Still, this approach could impact how courts conduct themselves even after the effects of the pandemic wear off. Learn more about how courts are holding virtual court and what this could mean for the legal system in the future.
Virtual court is when hearings are conducted via telephone or video conferencing without anyone having to leave their homes. Courts will typically use Zoom or Skype Business to connect with all the relevant parties. Usually, the law requires a judge, a defense attorney or public defender, prosecutor, and the county court clerk to be connected to the call or conference. For people who are physically present at the court, their temperature must be taken, their hands must be washed, and they must pass a series of screening questions before they are allowed into the courtroom.
For many courts, switching to virtual court was not unreasonable because they already had the resources in place. For example, the bar association was previously brainstorming on how to achieve justice in rural areas where there aren’t as many lawyers available. Similarly, New York was already using vide oconferencing for bedside arraignments of hospitalized criminal defendants for mental health hearings. And Michigan bought Zoom videoconference licenses for its judges in order to use it when it’s too expensive to transport a prisoner across the state to a hearing. One judge even live-streamed hearings via YouTube in order to give family members access to court proceedings.
States across the country have dedicated resources to establishing virtual court processes. In Florida, attorneys had to be reminded by a judge to still dress professionally for the Zoom hearings after one attorney didn’t wear a shirt. But one of the most notable court systems to adopt this technology was New York who put in place virtual operations in all 62 counties in a matter of weeks. On April 13th, 2020, the Chief Administrative Judge announced that New York courts would expand their virtual hearings beyond “essential and emergency matters.” Check out this article by Ballotpedia to see the status of your local court.
Beyond individual states, the Supreme and Federal Courts have also responded to the pandemic with technology. In an unprecedented turn of events, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear oral arguments by phone. Meanwhile, the Federal Courts are now offering the public and news media online access to some virtual criminal proceedings.
For process servers, the switch to virtual court could have various impacts especially if the use of technology lasts beyond the pandemic. Courts are even thinking this technology will help with the influx of cases they predict will follow after the stay at home orders lift. This influx will affect you too as a process server so familiarize yourself with how your local courts are conducting business. A skill that might be useful to know is eFiling, eService, and virtual notary. Being able to offer these alternative services will make you more appealing to clients that depend on virtual court. It also might serve you to look into electronic signatures. Esignatures replace a handwritten signature with virtual consent and are a way to notarize digital documents. This crisis and the growing popularity of virtual court is establishing the usefulness of digital operations and, while it might be a change to your process serving business, it updates your services and makes them relevant for a changing future.