For 20 years now, American life has been increasingly lived online. That trend accelerated extremely rapidly last year, as suddenly many workers started telecommuting from home and schools went online. Courts, too, had to adjust to this new reality.
Now, many schools are returning to in-person learning and some workers are returning to the office. Will courts follow suit?
The answer undoubtedly depends on the type of case involved. It’s possible that hearings involving divorce and other issues in family law will continue to be held largely online for the indefinite future.
The upside of remote hearings
Unlike criminal law cases, where defendants have the constitutional right to a jury trial, family law cases are usually heard by a judge without a jury. In fact, the vast majority of divorces and other family law disputes never go to trial at all.
Still, people must frequently go to court for hearings related to child custody and other family law issues. If a parent or other participant can’t make it to the scheduled hearing time, they risk forfeiting their case. Over the past year, there has been a lot of evidence to suggest that people are much more likely to attend their hearings if they are able to do so remotely. For this reason, some lawyers have suggested that courts continue to hold many of these hearings remotely in the future.
There are serious concerns about remote family law hearings. In cases that involve criminal issues, such as domestic violence, the constitution says courts must provide the accused with a chance to confront their accuser.
Some lawyers worry that, even in non-criminal cases, the format of a remote hearing can lead to new problems. For instance, the frame of a video camera may not reveal if someone else is beside someone while they are testifying, intimidating them or telling them what to say. It’s also possible that judges are less likely to empathize with individuals if they don’t get to see them in person.
When speaking with a family law attorney about their legal options, clients can ask about how remote hearings may affect their case.