Trials and Litigation in the Era of COVID-19 (V): Return to In-Person Trials as Virtual Court Continues

This series explores various issues relating to the reopening of New Jersey Courts in the wake of COVID-19, including the intersection of safety measures and the rights of litigants.

On May 11, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that in-person criminal jury trials and some in-person civil jury trials will return on or after June 15, 2021 in a significant step towards normalcy as COVID-19 trends improve in New Jersey and the country. Resumption of in-person grand jury sessions have also been authorized. Criminal trials, particularly those involving detained defendants, are to be given top priority. Health precautions such as social distancing and masks will remain in place. Also, as of June 15, 2021, up to 50% of judges and court staff are expected to return to courthouses across the state to support in-person trials as well as other court proceedings. Certain aspects of trials, including the first stage of jury selection, will remain virtual and trials will be open to the public on a very limited basis. 

On May 10, 2021, New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced that all New York Judges and staff were to return to the courtroom by the end of May. However, lawyers, litigants, and court users would be limited. As in-person proceedings are resuming, some virtual practices could remain in place long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.  As Judge DiFiore noted, virtual proceedings in certain circumstances have proven effective at resolving cases in a “convenient, timely, and cost-effective matter.”

While New Jersey has yet to make a similar announcement on the permanence of virtual proceedings, litigants can expect to spend more time on their laptops rather than in a physical courtroom. The new reality has its advantages: if executed correctly, virtual courts can be an easier, efficient, and more effective way to handle many aspects of cases such as routine court conferences, settlement sessions, and filing of certain documents. New Jersey Courts have expanded such services over the past year, including the JEDS filing system which now allows litigants to submit a far wider range of documents online without going to their local courthouse. Additionally, conducting routine pre-trial court conferences remotely can save us a lot of time and effort. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the balance between the convenience of virtual court and the importance of preserving the people’s constitutional right to be physically present in court whether the matter be criminal or civil.

If you need guidance on virtual trials or have questions on the resumption of in-person court proceedings in New Jersey, please contact Amelia Lyte or Chad Moore or call us at (732) 545-4717.