At this point in the pandemic, much has changed in our everyday lives. We have had to find alternative ways to educate our children, shop for our groceries, and socialize with friends. These changes do not only affect our personal choices, but they also extend to the law and order we rely on to govern our communities and keep us safe. Lately, traditional jury trials were halted because of the pandemic. Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady formed the Florida Judiciary’s COVID-19 Workgroup to create a pilot program to test out a way to carry out civil jury trials with remote technology to support social distancing. On July 15, this pilot was put to the test for the first time. The Miami Court pulled off the first jury trial that day in Florida since March.
WHAT DID THE PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
Jurors were first selected with a Zoom session. While many would assume this would be a headache, Chief Judge Bertila Soto described it as “astonishingly normal” and she said, “I was really moved. I had tears in my eyes when I saw people were willing to sit as jurors in this case. It gives me hope that people believe that the system of justice is important, that they want access to the courts. It really blew me away to hear the jurors.” Upon arrival, jurors were given specific parking spots and escorted to the courtroom by bailiffs. Each juror had his or her temperature checked and was asked routine questions regarding COVID-19 symptoms. Then, they were carefully spaced six feet apart inside the courtroom. Everyone wore mandatory masks, and jurors were given face shields to use when they moved from one space to another. All witnesses delivered their accounts from behind plexiglass. It was no surprise that only the bare minimum amount of people were allowed to be in the courtroom, but it was streamed online for others to watch safely. The entire trial took over the space of four courtrooms in total to give space for breaks and lunches.
WHAT KIND OF COURT CASES WILL BE USED IN THE PILOT?
For now, this is only being used with civil cases. Civil cases are less complex and can even be sometimes settled without a lawyer present. The ease of these cases make themselves easier targets for everyone involved. This first case was a simple insurance dispute for a homeowner trying to get damage covered by Hurricane Irma. The jurors present voted in favor of the homeowner after a 1-day trial.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF THIS METHOD?
There are many pros to consider with this first jury trial under Florida’s wing. For example, the fact that enough people were willing to participate in jury selection via Zoom, in spite of growing numbers for COVID-positive patients, speaks volumes about our citizens’ respect for the legal process even in these difficult times. Another positive is that volunteering for this pilot process is a quick option to settle in comparison to waiting up to a year to naturally get your day in court. Additionally, the push to use technology now is causing many to realize that several simple tasks could easily be done with technology. The pilot process is forcing others to realize how outdated the civil court’s system is and just how easily it can be updated.
With any new system, there are also drawbacks. One of the downfalls is that some people do not prefer jury selection to be done online because it can be more difficult to gauge someone through a computer than in person. Another disadvantage is that some clients, especially those with more high-profile cases, may not feel comfortable having such an important decision being used as a guinea pig in the courts. Lastly, the lack of space makes things more complicated. With criminal cases pending, it seems even harder to imagine succeeding at social distancing in the courtroom with even more people involved. Though this is just a pilot program for civil cases, eventually it will have to extend to include criminal cases because many people have been waiting to be seen since the pandemic hit.
One major takeaway is that this has completely changed traffic court, which is now done remotely. Many are convinced that this is the way it needs to continue being handled, so we are already seeing updates to the system that will improve the overall efficiency of the court process for everyone involved.
PREPARING FOR YOUR CIVIL CASE
Even though civil cases can be completed mostly without a lawyer getting involved, you still have the right to use one. If you find yourself going to court, make sure you have the right legal guidance on your side. The law offices of Keller, Melchiorre, and Walsh are ready to help you get the justice you deserve. Contact us today to set up a consultation that fits your needs and schedule.