The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of normal life, from simple things like dining out and going to the park down to the more complex activities like buying houses and going to court. With mass vaccinations going on around the country, we can expect things to look up in the next few months. But while the pre-pandemic life is still out of reach, many systems are still in ‘COVID mode’—including court proceedings.
Before the pandemic, all proceedings were held entirely in person, except for special cases. Today, courts operate on a very different basis with such changes in place:
During these pandemic times, remote communication takes precedence over in-person communication. This applies to almost every industry where remote communication is applicable, most notably; healthcare, education, and law.
Before the pandemic, deponents (witnesses giving their sworn out-of-court testimony) had two options for deposition: oral and written. For oral depositions, witnesses give their statements in the presence of the attorneys from both parties and an individual that is qualified to administer oaths. This type of deposition is usually conducted at a lawyer’s office or at the witness’ home. Written depositions, on the other hand, involve the deponents answering written questions and sending them to the appropriate parties. They do not require the presence of a lawyer, and are thus often seen as less reliable than the former option.
Today, witnesses can now also give their accounts through remote deposition. Court reporters offer videoconferencing services that function just like an oral deposition, except the parties do not leave their home for health and safety reasons. All a witness needs are a laptop or a smartphone (with a working microphone, camera, and speakers) and a stable Internet connection to be able to conduct their deposition this way.
At the height of the pandemic, courts closed down just like many other establishments and facilities. Even now, courts are struggling to catch up with the backlog and many are also operating at a reduced capacity. To ensure fairness and define the most urgent cases, courts have adopted various methods of “case triaging.”
What many courts consider urgent are cases wherein individuals are at risk for mental or physical harm, as in the case of domestic abuse victims that are still living with their abuser at home. Cases wherein individuals are deprived of their basic human rights are also on top of the list.
Case triaging is not perfect, however. Some rules and proceedings are arbitrary or inconsistent. Nevertheless, the urgency of cases is inherently fluid, and thus requires assessment on a case-to-case basis.
The pandemic has brought about things that we have never seen before, and a great example of which are remote hearings. Just like with online classes and corporate meetings, courts now hold hearings through video conferencing to keep all people in attendance safe, and they do this with varying regulatory frameworks. However, this option is not available for all types of cases, especially those that require the presence of a jury.
In general, remote hearings are convenient for everyone in attendance. Participants only need an online account, video conferencing software (which is often free), and a stable internet connection to join. They also have the option of using either their phone or computer to attend the hearing, which means they can participate from anywhere in the world (which also eliminates the hassle of traveling to the courthouse).
Some judges also post or live broadcast the hearing online to ensure public access, most often through YouTube.
Health and safety protocols
As the courts ease back into pre-pandemic operations, authorities have adopted health and safety protocols for face-to-face proceedings. These protocols are not unfamiliar; we have seen them repeatedly throughout the pandemic and are also likely used to them. They include:
- Requiring registration prior to entering the building
- Limiting the seating capacity in courtrooms
- Sourcing other buildings for court hearings
- Mandating the wearing of appropriate face masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene
- Installing protective boards in public court areas
- Health screening individuals before allowing entry to the building
- Using separate courtrooms and streaming the event in the other room
In some cases, judges may also allow individuals to refuse face-to-face attendance if there are genuine health and safety concerns present.
The world has changed so much since the start of the pandemic. These are just some of the changes that occurred in the country’s courts as a means to protect people from the virus, but they are the most effective and most efficient of all.