A paradigm shift in remote courtrooms has sparked a profound examination of legal procedures and how the public engages with the administration of justice. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 prompted the closure of court buildings worldwide. While informal virtual gatherings became commonplace for most of us, transitioning legal proceedings into the digital realm proved to be a more complex task. We simply had not prepared for such an upheaval.
The past couple of years have served as an impromptu testing ground for a new era marked by virtual access to justice. It has not been a temporary fix, but rather an experimental phase involving various technologies, both new and old, within and beyond the courtroom.
Since the onset of the pandemic, countless court proceedings, including trials and hearings, have taken place remotely through video conferencing. Courts at every level have developed protocols and rules for leveraging platforms like Zoom to ensure the seamless continuation of legal processes. However, navigating this transition has proved to be quite intricate.
In Lake County, Illinois, the 19th Judicial Circuit Court rose to the challenge and developed a transparent and comprehensive procedural framework. Participants and observers are now provided remote access to court proceedings. Attorneys and litigants who receive a notice or specific instructions from the judge are able to participate remotely. Conversely, those directed to appear in person must do so at the courthouse. This flexible approach ensures accessibility while maintaining the court’s high standards.
The circuit court has even devised a protocol outlining the installation and effective usage of Zoom, as well as guidelines on proper behavior and attire. By doing so, the court has preserved and reinforced the stringent standards that were once required when all litigants appeared in person.
Judge Roy Ferguson of the 394th district court emphasizes the importance of upholding the dignity of the bench. He personally wears a robe and insists that litigants and lawyers adhere to traditional courtroom attire, while exhibiting the same professionalism as in a physical courtroom.
Accessibility plays a crucial role in maintaining a just judicial system. Remote courtrooms offer a new level of access for individuals with disabilities, enabling effective participation like never before.
Judge Stephanie Burke of Jefferson County, Kentucky highlights the benefits of remote hearings, particularly for patients with mental illnesses who may already be in distress. Forcing distressed individuals to appear in a physical courthouse, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and an atmosphere rife with uncertainty, can exacerbate their condition. Remote platforms present a more compassionate alternative, and even after COVID restrictions are lifted, these platforms are expected to continue serving such cases.
The adoption of remote proceedings has led to increased court attendance across the board. Livestreaming court proceedings has the potential to enhance transparency, allowing interested parties to observe active courtrooms from the comfort of their homes. Moreover, by eliminating costs associated with lawyer travel and long wait times, virtual courthouses make legal representation more affordable for a broader population. Streamlined processes empower lawyers to take on more clients, extending their reach geographically.
Nevertheless, accessibility also poses challenges. The digital age has blurred the lines of gatekeeping. For instance, a virtual court hearing in Ontario, Canada was disrupted when the Zoom meeting login details were posted on Twitter, resulting in the intrusion of verbal abuse and inappropriate imagery.
Legal Implications and Concerns
Legal experts raise valid concerns about remote hearings potentially favoring larger law firms that can afford better lighting and stable internet connections for themselves and their clients. In addition to being judged on appearance, speech, and manner, litigants can now also be evaluated based on the appearance of their homes and workplaces. Such considerations prompt questions about the preservation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, including the right to a speedy and public trial, the ability to confront witnesses, and access to counsel.
Effective communication with witnesses and the jury is essential for skilled attorneys. They must captivate the jury’s attention, gauge their level of comprehension, ensure clear visibility and audibility of evidence, and collectively appeal to them in a memorable manner. Can this degree of rhetoric be replicated through a webcam? What might be lost in the process, and more importantly, how might justice be hindered?
The Power of Information
Social media platforms offer unprecedented access to a wide array of information, both accurate and misleading. The public no longer needs to be physically present in a courtroom to become aware of dramatic events. For instance:
Depp v. Heard
The highly publicized defamation case between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard unfolded minute-by-minute on the internet, plagued by misleading video edits and uninformed opinions shared on TikTok, Facebook, and other platforms. Social media posts even served as evidence in the courtroom. During the trial, a suspicious tweet posted by a key witness caught the attention of Judge Penney Azcarate, leading to the banning of a friend of the opposing party from the courtroom due to a violation of the no-phone policy. The testimony of the same witness was later struck from the record after admitting to watching trial clips online.
Despite its potential for drama and gossip, social media also has positive influences. Accounts like @DemocracyDocket, founded by elections lawyer Mark Elias, provide reliable and factual information to the public about voting rights and elections. With the abundance of disinformation surrounding elections, having trusted sources readily accessible is crucial. Legal discussions have arisen regarding the application of the First Amendment to social media platforms. The Supreme Court’s upcoming docket includes a significant case challenging the legal liability protection granted to social media platforms by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Embracing Technological Change
In the 1980s and 1990s, the introduction of computers and fax machines to law offices faced resistance from many lawyers reluctant to adapt to new technology. Even the convenience of e-filing documents was met with skepticism and grumbling. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the sudden shift to remote court proceedings in 2020 led to an unexpected wave of lawyer retirements. Unfamiliarity with technology, coupled with concerns about potential public missteps, deterred senior attorneys from venturing into the virtual realm, unwilling to jeopardize their well-established professional reputations.
Younger attorneys already have an advantage when it comes to remote legal practice, having grown up with online communication. The subsequent generation of lawyers will be even more proficient in this domain. Virtual hearings are here to stay, and young associate attorneys will prove to be invaluable assets for senior partners.
Moreover, lawyers must possess computer literacy and be adept at using the software and hardware necessary for active participation, as well as educating and supporting clients and witnesses. Seasoned attorneys less technologically inclined will require assistance from staff equipped with these competencies.
As remote courtrooms gradually become the norm in certain areas of the legal profession and the country, online law schools provide an ideal environment for preparing lawyers for the real world. Remote interaction with professors and classmates fosters confidence in emerging lawyers, familiarizes them with handling unexpected technical challenges, and enables them to engage virtually with judges and litigants.
Learn More about Garrity Traina
If you’re considering an online legal education that sets you up for success, explore the online JD program offered by the Garrity Traina School of Law. With its exceptional curriculum covering legal practice and virtual platforms, this program equips students with the tools needed to excel in the legal field. Discover more at Garrity Traina.