Trials and Litigation in the Era of COVID-19 (VIII): Virtual Proceedings Are Serious…Even From Your Living Room

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

Since March of 2020, our lives and how we interact with each other have changed drastically. We replaced in-person events with online teleconferences and zoom meetings, and courtrooms were no exception to this trend. Trials and other pre-trial proceedings including depositions, court conferences, and mediations also moved to video conferencing. This practice is inherently different than being present in the Court with others. A courtroom is not your living room. A Judge sits high in front of you. There are sheriff’s officers, attorneys and other litigants present, as well as the public.  You need to stand and sit when told. You cannot speak or chew gum or even wear a hat.  You need to be present and generally engaged. It is a serious matter by definition. The move to virtual appearances changes the experience. The question is, what are the consequences of these changes?

Court proceedings are serious events, whether they be a sworn deposition, mediation, or a trial. The outcomes of these proceedings have strong, lasting, and profound effects on people’s lives. They determine if a defendant in a criminal case will go to prison or if a civil plaintiff will receive compensation for an injury. Giving sworn testimony is very serious and lying under oath is a crime. Part of what impresses upon people the nature of the courtroom is being present in it. Standing in front of a judge or sitting in a conference room with attorneys conducting a deposition gives these proceedings an added layer of significance and allows litigants to feel the weight of what is happening. That was largely lost as we moved to virtual proceedings.

Several news stories (ranging from amusing to alarming) have explored the pitfalls of zoom and the virtual courtroom, such as the attorney who appeared in court as a cat or the case of an accused abuser being in the same house with the victim during a domestic violence hearing. Anecdotally, there are less dramatic examples. Witnesses smoking, eating, or even driving while giving sworn testimony. Litigants and lawyers being distracted by phones or pets or kids during proceedings. Others appeared for court in pajamas and sometimes we wondered if the other person was even wearing pants during the zoom session. Further, even when everyone is wearing professional attire and paying full attention, it is undeniable that sitting in your living room and seeing a group of little zoom boxes like the Brady Bunch on your laptop or phone is less imposing that being in a courtroom.

Are people taking the court (or at least court proceedings) less seriously? This is a possible and certainly concerning trend. The court as an institution is built upon respect. As attorneys, we understand the importance of court proceedings and the impact that these proceedings have on people’s lives. Therefore, it is our responsibility to impart the seriousness of court proceedings to our clients, witnesses, and to the public. In doing so we will uphold the reverence of the court while better preparing our clients for what lies ahead.

Attorneys at Hoagland Longo have extensive experience in helping litigants navigate the changing guidelines of virtual, hybrid, and in-person court proceedings. Should you need assistance or guidance, please feel free to contact Amelia Lyte and Joseph Leone or call us at (732) 545-4717.