How Did the Coronavirus Pandemic Change the Court System in Florida?
On January 21, 2020, the first case of the Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) was found in the United States. At first, the general population of the country thought the spread of the virus would be minimal and that the United States government would take the proper steps to ensure the safety of the country. However, the nation saw an unexpected rapid spike in cases after the first case was reported and the next few months proved to be challenging.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization which is responsible for international public health declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and on March 13, 2020, Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a National Emergency, and the United States began shutting down with the exception of essential businesses. The United States Court system was part of the shutdown which left many individuals wondering how would this affect the legal system and how long would the shutdown be for.
Florida, which throughout the pandemic has been one of the most infected states in the United States, acted quickly and through the use of technology found a way to proceed with court hearings. They began using a program called Zoom which provides video conferencing and online chat services, to continue holding court hearings during the shutdown. The use of Zoom has been effective. The courts have kept using the program and still use it today! Judges and staff members of Florida courthouses were trained on the Zoom platform to become familiar with how to use it. They then went through a testing phase to make sure that they were fully prepared when it came to the use of the platform and to make sure that they don’t make any mistakes during an actual trial.
The shift from in-person to Zoom hearings has allowed hearings to move forward. At the beginning of the pandemic, courts were already beginning to get backed up, the early adaptation to the Zoom platform allowed the court systems to begin clearing dockets. Florida is the 3rd most populated state in the United States with over 21 million residents which results in a larger caseload therefore it was vital to find some sort of emergency protocol early on.
There are multiple benefits when it comes to this virtual shift. The biggest benefit is the fact that hearings are finally moving forward after being stalled and, that they are being done in arguably the safest way possible. Another benefit to going virtual is that none of the individuals who are virtually present are at risk of being infected which is the reason behind all of this, doing everything possible to stop the spread of COVID-19. The convenience aspect is also a major benefit, Judges, attorneys, staff members and other individuals who need to be present can avoid having to travel to the courthouse which is not only an advantage now, but will be in the future as well if they decide to still use Zoom for certain hearings later on. Some judges have also said that Zoom hearings are beneficial for them to truly assess the credibility of the witnesses. There are fewer distractions in the virtual courthouse and the witnesses are forced to make eye contact with the judge on Zoom.
There are some major disadvantages which can also be seen. Judges don’t have the same control they have in a physical courtroom when they are in a virtual courtroom. They can’t control who is speaking and even who is using their cell phone throughout the process. There is also a major issue in the privacy of the hearing while using Zoom, the wrong group of individuals might be able to log on to the page where the trial is happening and either watch or illegally record the trial. There are some major disadvantages which can also be seen. Judges don’t have the same control they have in a physical courtroom when they are in a virtual courtroom. They can’t control who is speaking and even who is using their cell phone throughout the process. There is also a major issue in the privacy of the hearing while using Zoom, the wrong group of individuals might be able to log on to the page where the trial is happening and either watch or illegally record the trial.
The way our technology has developed and is constantly developing has allowed court systems to make a virtual shift. It has been working for the time being and will continue to be used until it is safe to return to court, but even then, who knows if they will want to or need to go back…
Patricia Elizee is the managing partner of Elizee Law Firm, an immigration and family law firm located at 1110 Brickell Avenue, Suite 315, Miami, Florida 33131. She can be reached at Ph: 305-371-8846