The coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly all aspects of life for many Americans, and it has also forced the judicial system to make drastic changes in the way that court business is conducted. While many courts temporarily closed during the various stay-at-home orders around the country and postponed hearings, the reopening of cities and counties has also meant that courts have reopened.
Since the pandemic is still raging across the U.S., some courts have opted to work remotely. Some believe it’s long overdue since the technology has been available for years. However, opponents of remote hearings and depositions view them as dystopian and believe that they should be held in person.
Impact of COVID-19 on the courts
Courts have typically been slow to embrace technology because of concerns about confidentiality and legal ethics. However, the advent of COVID-19 since the early months of 2020 in the U.S. have forced courts at the local, state, and federal levels to re-evaluate how they operate. Technology allows courts to hold hearings remotely, and some courts have responded by doing so. The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments remotely via teleconferencing during the spring through the end of its term. Attorneys have held depositions via videoconferencing technology, and courts at every level have held hearings in that way. Some people welcome the rise of remote depositions and hearings due to COVID-19 and hope that it portends a permanent change for how the courts operate, but others view the changes as Orwellian.
Proponents of the embrace of technology by the courts
Proponents of turning to remote operations in the courts during the pandemic identify several benefits. Holding hearings and depositions remotely helps to keep people safer and reduce the likelihood that they might contract COVID-19. Remote depositions and hearings also mean that attorneys do not need to take as many trips to court. Proponents point out that remote hearings and depositions can increase the productivity of attorneys because they can work in their offices right up until the time that the depositions or hearings are scheduled rather than spending time traveling to them. Another advantage of holding hearings and depositions remotely that proponents point out is the increased efficiency offered by them. Continuing to hold depositions remotely could also lead to significant cost savings since lawyers would not need to purchase plane tickets to travel to depositions held far away or incur hotel and car rental costs when they travel to attend depositions for their clients’ cases.
Opponents of remote hearings and depositions
Opponents of remote hearings and depositions point to several disadvantages of holding court hearings and depositions remotely. In criminal cases, for example, they point out that inmates in jail who are forced to appear by videoconference for arraignments cannot whisper with their lawyers but instead must talk while being overheard by corrections officers and other inmates. Attorneys also argue that holding hearings and depositions remotely means that they cannot speak in confidence with their clients and are less able to effectively represent them. People also pick up more nonverbal cues in in-person hearings and depositions that are difficult to see when hearings are held by teleconferencing or videoconferencing technology.
While it is unclear whether the courts’ current embrace of technology will continue beyond the pandemic, COVID-19 has ushered in some sweeping changes to how they operate. This technology might become more widely embraced for simple hearings because of the cost and time savings, but it remains unclear whether the changes are temporary or permanent.