In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic introduced Americans to many changes. One of them is adopting virtual hearings in court.
When the pandemic forced the closure of many businesses and practically all government offices, court systems began evaluating the elevated use of virtual hearings. Until this point, the overwhelming majority of most civil and criminal court cases were in-person proceedings.
Citizens have many questions about virtual hearings, so we’ll attempt to answer the most pressing ones. There are differences in court proceedings. For example, preliminary hearings and trials may be handled differently. Trials handled and decided by a single judge differ from those requiring a pool of 12 jurors.
Remember, all 50 states and the federal government establish procedures for handling court cases in their respective jurisdictions. Therefore, you need to confirm if and how a court system in your community uses virtual hearing online.
This article is simply an overview of the process and is not intended to provide legal advice.
What Is a Virtual Court Hearing?
A virtual hearing is when all relevant parties to a legal case appear over one or more phone lines or via video conferencing instead of appearing in-person in for a court hearing. Many judges have conducted some proceedings via phone calls for several years. Most of these conversations addressed preliminary or status issues. Courts held few, if any, trials virtually.
Today courts in most states are hearing actual court proceedings over video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. The judge controls how and when each party can participate in the hearing or trial.
Like in-person hearings, all legal matters requiring a court reporter or legal transcription service are recorded and available for review.
Are Online Court Hearings Legal?
Court hearings are legal if approved by the governing body that oversees the courts in a particular jurisdiction. The United States Constitution states that anyone charged with a crime and tried in the U.S. has the right to be heard by a jury of their peers. How that jury hears the case is evolving.
When government authorities decided to temporarily halt court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, court administrators began to evaluate how to hold court action.
On March 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This legislation addressed several issues brought about by the pandemic, including how the federal court system handled cases.
On March 29, 2020 the United States Judicial Conference granted the chief judge in each federal jurisdiction the right to allow video teleconferencing. Almost every state court also addressed the issue. While the federal courts in Western District in Tennessee decided to allow virtual hearings, all jury trials are continued until April 30, 2021.
However, some federal jurisdictions allow jury trials in time-sensitive cases involving the death penalty and life imprisonment. If in-person federal trials are held, strict safety guidelines are followed.
How Do Virtual Court Hearings Work?
When a court or judge decides to hold a virtual hearing, they will notify the respective attorneys and parties to the case. The office of the court clerk is typically responsible for notifying the parties.
Advancements in technology allow participants to easily participate in remote hearings via video conferences such as Skype, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Zoom is by far the most popular video platform. Nevertheless, opting for Microsoft Teams on a laptop or cell phone offers a practical, effortless solution.
An informal poll of judges in May of 2020 by The National Judicial College showed of the 702 respondents, 48% of judges preferred Zoom, with WebEx a distant second with 25 percent. Whereas, according to the 2021 LTN Law Firm Tech Survey, 59% of law firm tech executives revealed that their firms had adopted Microsoft Teams to enhance efficiency, productivity, collaboration, and video conference.
Zoom’s popularity among court officers is partly due to its ease of use, features such as the “waiting room,” the ability to record, and virtual break-out rooms for confidential discussions.
How Do I Participate In a Virtual Hearing?
Participating in a virtual legal hearing is relatively simple. Since Zoom is widely used for virtual legal hearings, let’s use it as an example. Below are the tools and knowledge needed to participate in a virtual court hearing:
- Access to video conferencing software or app
- Reliable & secure internet connection
- Valid phone number & email account
- Updated computer or tablet
- Ability to use & operate technology
- Private space in home or office
Zoom For a Virtual Court Hearing
First, you’ll need to install the Zoom app on your smartphone or tablet or download the program on a laptop or desktop computer. Installation is relatively simple so follow the directions. You’ll also be required to establish an account with whatever platform you use, which requires an active email account.
Next, make sure you have a strong cellular or WiFi signal. The best method is to access a private WiFi connection. Accessing a public WiFi system isn’t recommended for security reasons, and performance may be suboptimal. Using a smartphone, you can access the hearing via a cellular phone signal. Make certain the signal is strong and that you remain in a stationary position throughout the hearing.
Many judges have banned or highly discouraged anyone on the call from participating while driving.
Once you have downloaded or installed the app, it’s recommended that you acquaint yourself with the app’s features by completing a practice call with a friend or family member. That way, you’ll know what to expect the first time you appear at your virtual hearing.
Setting Up For The Virtual Court Hearing
Before your virtual court hearing, you will receive a link or phone number to access the hearing. Like any legal proceeding, failure to appear at a virtual hearing is the same as failing to appear in-person. You must have ample notice before any proceeding, so install any audio or video conferencing platform and familiarize yourself with its use.
Most judges will place all the participants in a “waiting room” until they are needed. Like in court, the judge may confer with the respective attorneys first to clarify exactly what will be discussed during the virtual court proceeding.
Remember: all participants, from attorneys to defendants, witnesses, or whoever is participating, must observe and follow the same rules as if they were physically in court. Often, judges will mute participants until their verbal response is required.
It’s also important that everyone can hear you clearly. Most computers and smartphones have decent to good microphones. However, using earphones or a high-quality microphone will enhance audio quality.
You must dress and appear the same as if you are physically attending a legal proceeding. Keep in mind that you may be virtually sworn-in. If so, any testimony or response given must be truthful and to the point. Judges still maintain the right to hold participants in contempt for not following rules or potentially charging someone with perjury if they provide false testimony.
Finally, if you are represented by an attorney or requested to appear at a virtual legal proceeding by an attorney, they can advise you on whatever platform is used. You or your attorney will be able to order your court transcripts the same as if you were in court in person and have them available to review.
Why Are Streaming Court Hearings Necessary?
Judges most always prefer to conduct hearings or trials in-person. Each judicial entity has established rules of procedure, and they are almost always followed to the letter of the law. Judges can elect to hold virtual hearings when it’s impossible or impractical to conduct in-person legal proceedings.
Depending on what part of the country a proceeding is held in, various safety procedures are put in place to protect everyone. Social distancing precautions taken to protect everyone during the country’s most recent pandemic have increased virtual court hearings.
Have Online Court Hearings Impacted Jury Trials?
Today most virtual court hearings involve preliminary matters or small cases. While some jury trials have been conducted virtually, most judges and courts have elected to postpone or continue such trials until later.
Can a jury trial be held virtually? The answer is yes, but things can get a bit tricky. Court systems nationwide are postponing most jury trials while COVID-19 restrictions are in place. However, a few jury trials have taken place in the past few months.
A major obstacle is making sure all jurors have access to the proper technology. Maricopa County, Arizona, polled 32,000 potential jurors regarding their ability to access the internet. They also asked if potential jurors had access to the proper technology.
- 33 percent said they didn’t have access to an interruption-free home space
- 24 percent responded they lacked the physical ability to sit through a virtual trial
- 19 percent lacked private space at home
- 11 percent lacked access to a reliable internet service
- 10 percent didn’t have access to an electronic device with a camera
A Texas judge who has held over 120 virtual trials indicated that virtual jurors seemed more engaged in trials and asked more appropriate questions. However, most judges and court administrators agree that a major stumbling block to virtual trials is the lack of access to proper and secure technology and the knowledge and ability to use such technology.
There is little doubt that court systems will increase the number of virtual court proceedings as technology and the ability to use it advances.
Once social-distancing recommendations allow courts to reopen, expect the number of in-person trials to increase for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, virtual court hearings are most likely here to stay.