When virtual courts can be utilized

COVID-19 has dramatically changed how courts proceed with trials. Virtual courts have become more prevalent and helped lower the number of back-logged cases. However, only the trials that do not require juries have been able to be moved online. Bench trials do not have a jury. The judge weighs evidence and delivers a verdict in trials sans jury. Bench trials include traffic violations, alimony payment, divorce proceedings, and some minor misdemeanors.

Virtual courts are unable to replace criminal and civil trials. Criminal and civil trials are the two types of judicial proceedings in the federal courts that are required to use juries. Twelve jurors make up a criminal jury and need to make an unanimous decision for the defendant to be found guilty. In civil trials, at least six people make up the jury. This jury must also come to a unanimous decision unless otherwise directed. Guilty pleas, plea negotiations, and settlement negotiations reduce the need for juries.

Virtual court benefits

Even back in 2012, many state courts made extensive use of videoconferencing in civil trials with substantial success. Delaware County, Pennsylvania, claimed to save $271,000 per month in court costs from its use of teleconferencing. This year in Utah, bench trials are already being held remotely. When COVID-19 hit in March, judges, clerks, and attorneys started working from home and tuned into proceedings virtually. The New York State court system has reduced their back-log by a third. Reducing back log is imperative to keep up with the onslaught of new cases that will be filed as courts open up more. Michigan Courts have reported that feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. McGrail, from Michigan, said it has been a “rare win-win-win situation” that allows the courts to perform essential duties safely.

“Attorneys have more time in their offices to do things more productive than waiting in a busy courtroom. Their clients, and our self-represented litigants, are not paying for gas, driving in bad road conditions, or taking extended time away from work and family. And those victimized by crime have the option to appear remotely, in the company of loved ones and in the comfort of their home, rather than in an intimidating courtroom.”

Here to stay?

Courts are typically slow to implement new technology. After COVID-19 hit, courts were forced to go online. This has helped reduce the back log of cases as well as save time and money. There is a strong possibility that many of the cases that can stay online, will stay there.