RE-OPENING THE COURTS
Once litigation has been filed—whether it be a personal injury lawsuit, a family law case, or other dispute—the goal is always the same: get to a trial. As Killeen, Temple, Harker Heights, and other cities within Bell County attempt to safely and effectively re-open, the Texas Court system is also adjusting to meet the needs of Central Texans in these times of COVID-19.
As of now, end-of-May 2020, Bell and Coryell County courts have attempted to balance the need to keep cases moving with public safety by allowing emergency and uncontested issues to proceed through video hearings, and contested matters be continued until it is safe to open the courthouse doors once again. These procedures were crafted with the guidance of the Texas Supreme Court’s emergency orders issued as a result of this pandemic. As this national crisis lingers on, however, Courts can only keep pushing off contested matters for so long.
A TEXAS COURT USES ZOOM
In an attempt to adapt with the times, one Texas court is moving forward with a summary jury trial via Zoom. This first-of-its-kind proceeding started with more than 24-people logging into a Zoom room for the jury selection process, wherein the lawyers representing the parties were able to select their jury via videoconference. A summary jury trial is an excellent litmus test for video trials, as it is a condensed, non-binding trial which is used by the parties as a tool to help potentially settle the dispute at a mediation before the real jury trial.
IS A CONFERENCE CALL THE SAME AS A FACE-TO-FACE HEARING?
As trial lawyers, this is a difficult reality in which we live. We naturally want to advocate for our clients in a court-room—looking jurors and judges in the eye. With video, the trial becomes more difficult. That is, sound is often lagging, there are limitation as to your natural movements when staying seated, and it becomes harder to read body language. These factors will result in juries and judges not being fully engaged—especially as distractions in home occur. A fact-finder who is not fully engaged does not help the client.
That being said, parties to a suit are owed due process and a speedy proceeding. For example, in the context of a contested divorce, in addition to the statutory 60-day waiting period, parties are now being offered trial dates months away—thereby delaying their divorce. Similarly, in personal injury cases, by delaying the jury trial, there is a delay in clients being able to receive the funds necessary to get the medical treatments they need. Simply put, justice delayed is justice denied. This was the impetus for a Harris County, Texas online survey for lawyers in re-opening the courthouse. In this survey, practicing lawyers were able to provide input as to how courts could safely, but effectively reopen their doors.
OPEN FOR JUSTICE
We as a society, living in our new reality, will adapt and overcome this uncertain time. The legal system, as it has for centuries, will evolve to meet the needs of litigants, and lawyers will develop effective advocacy skills for the mediums provided, even if that means video mediations and trials.
The important thing to remember, as a party or potential party to a dispute, is that the judicial system is still open and accessible to you. Bell and Coryell Counties have been working hard to return to normal, and, as your lawyer, we continue to zealously advocate for you. That is, if you need help, let us know—we’re ready to fight for you.