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Outlook for Courts in 2021

2021 is almost here, thank god. What does the coming year look like for handling your case in court? There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Family Court Matters:

A year ago, very few of us in the legal world knew about Zoom. Now we are all experts. The family courts have transitioned into using Zoom hearings for the vast majority of the cases. Currently the only in-person hearing are requests for injunctions and a few complicated hearings/trials that are too cumbersome to handle via Zoom. While the courts anticipate that as the pandemic subsides, there will be more in-person hearings, it is likely that the use of Zoom will continue for many family court hearings for the foreseeable future.

Zoom hearings have actually been well received in many respects. Zoom hearings offer the ability for many participants to be involved who were unable or were scared of coming to court in the past. Since the use of hearing via Zoom, there has been an increase in parties participating for all hearing and specially in child support hearings, which is very good. Zoom hearings mean less time away from work or home. Zoom hearings mean less attorney fees due to being more efficient with much less wasted time. While the judges and commissioners would prefer in-person hearings, they have recognized that for most of the cases and issues they handle, the benefits of having a video hearing outweigh the detriments.

Criminal Court

The criminal courts are still having great difficulty. The law provides that defendants who are pending a felony trial that cannot make their bail have a right to have a speedy jury trial meaning within 90 days. That is not happening. Due to the current very limited ability to handle jury trials, it is estimated that the backlog to deal with all the cases pending for defendants who have the right to a speedy trial is between two to four years. That says nothing about when defendants who are out of bail will get their cases heard. The courts are hoping to expand jury trials as the pandemic eases. There are now a limited number of jury trials set each week. But the process is and has been difficult. Even with the limited jury trial dates, actually getting a case going has been difficult. The jail has been having recurrent Covid outbreaks. When that happens, the pod effected is quarantined. So any inmate in that pod who has court cannot go to court. That is happening frequently. Likewise getting jurors, officers and witnesses to pass the Covid safety protocols to get into court has been a problem. That is on top of the usual problem of getting witnesses to court in the best of times.

The criminal courts are doing hearings in-person and via Zoom. Cases that have been resolved are being heard. The courts are holding regular status hearing and bail review hearings. But they are not keeping up with flow. It is anticipated that once things start to return to normal, the courts might shift some civil court judges to criminal courts to work in the backlogs.

Civil and Probate Courts

In the civil and probate areas, jury trial are just not happening. When jury trials will resume no one knows right now. The courts are handing whatever they can via Zoom hearings. So hearings dealing with, for example, probate, matters name changes, business disputes that do not require jury trials and limited in-person hearing are going on. The courts are strongly pushing alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation, to resolve cases.

Bottom line, the legal world has changed dramatically. In many respects things will never be like it was before. Rights of the individual have been put on hold. The courts are trying to address this but it is going slowly and is a difficult road. But a new year brings hope of improvement.

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