How has the court system changed amid coronavirus pandemic? Forces legal proceedings to go online

Michael Finney Image
Saturday, June 27, 2020
How has the court system changed amid coronavirus pandemic?
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The coronavirus pandemic forced many people to suddenly start working from home -- including those in the court system. Now, we're seeing a technical revolution in the justice system as courts stay in session by going online.

ALAMEDA, Calif. (KGO) -- Courtroom dramas change, but the courts themselves rarely do. The courts worked pretty much the same during the Patty Hearst trial in 1975 as they did during the OJ Simpson Trial in 1995, and how they were still operating this year... right up until the pandemic struck.

Jack Newton is CEO of Clio, a legal software company. "We're seeing, what I describe as, 5 or 10 years of change in the legal profession happen in 5 or 10 months," Newton says.

Sweeping changes in the Alameda County Courts have been shepherded by Presiding Judge Tara Desautels.

"So right now, we are in fact operating across all case types," she tells me. "What's different is we are doing it remotely."

Many work meetings are going online during the pandemic -- maybe you have participated on Zoom calls yourself -- and now courts are too.

"It is a huge change. It is a huge, huge transition," Judge Desautels says. "Security is of course, the paramount concern, but the bottom line is it is the job of the courts to be open when we are in these kinds of crisis and difficult periods."

I checked in with Alameda County's traffic court and got permission to record when Commissioner Bentrish Satarzadeh was presiding at traffic court.

A defendant accused of a carpool lane violation told the Commissioner in part, "I decided to take the carpool and pass by those stopped vehicles."

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The judge listens then makes her ruling: "Unfortunately the law does not have an exception to allow you to disobey traffic laws."

The HOV lane violation will stand. The stuffy, old-time courts of our past will not.

Commissioner Bentrish Satarzadeh says, "People are appearing online from their homes, some from their bedrooms, some from their kitchen, some from their cars. After you do it for a while -- the law is obviously the same, the procedures are pretty much the same -- it becomes normal."

Normal? That is exactly what Richard Susskind likes to hear. Based in London, he has spent decades working to modernize courts. The website Remote Courts Worldwide is one of his projects.

"It is unbelievable, isn't it, that more people have access to the internet in our world than have access to justice," he says.

Quoting from a recent study, Susskind tells me only "46% of people have realistic access to legal advice and the court system."

He thinks criminal trials, by and large, should remain in the physical courthouse, but civil matters should look at remote.

The tricky part is jury trials, and already courts are beginning to experiment. In Alameda, they are looking at having some jurors working remotely while others are in the courtroom and still others are in nearby rooms.

The Alameda County Grand Jury has been working remotely already and the incoming Grand Jury was selected by Judge Desautels via remote video.

What do those going to court say? San Francisco based legal website, Hello Divorce, posted a survey on Instagram asking how would each of us like to appear in court, in-person or remotely? Overwhelmingly respondents chose "remote."

Overseas, remote court modernization has gone to far greater lengths. In Singapore a man was sentenced to death for drug trafficking, via the video conferencing app, Zoom.

So courts are changing in Alameda, across California and the world, forced to change by the pandemic. So when the coronavirus is no longer a threat, will the courts remain innovative or go back to their old ways?

"I'm hoping we will be surprised," court modernization advocate Susskind tells me. "Surprised that when we were forced to work differently, we can actually not just muddle through, but improve on our old ways."

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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