Earlier this week, my colleague Drew Molotsky, wrote a blog about his experience as a seasoned attorney having his first Zoom Court hearing. I also had my first Zoom Court hearing this week as well and my experience echoes his, but, we are attorneys. We often in Court, if never before virtually and while a bit unusual to log in from the comfort our homes, the hearing process is the same and is like riding a bike, so to speak.
However, that is not the case for litigants at all. It is beyond nerve-wracking for a litigant to go to “live” Court. Learning that your court case is going to be “virtual” is even scarier. How does it work? Will it be as “good” as live Court? What am I supposed to do? Here is some guidance:
- How it works: For the hearing I had, the attorneys, Court staff and Judge participated by Zoom video and audio. We could see and hear everything the others did. However, each litigant was added telephonically. They were dialed in for audio only. While they could not see us, they heard everything. The Judge swore them in so they were under oath and they were able to participate by answering any questions asked of them by the Court. The process for the hearing was the same as it usually is in terms of the Court controlling the proceeding, allowing the attorneys to present their cases and argue their positions as necessary and the Court ruling on the matter. A court clerk participated to ensure the proceedings were recorded and a Probation officer participated to ensure that the appropriate Court Order was prepared. The only real difference was that we were not physically in the same place at the same time. Otherwise, the process was the same as it would have been had we all gone to the Courthouse.
- What do you do: You do the same thing you would if you were actually sitting in Court: pay attention, listen carefully, take good notes, answer when spoken to and speak in a clear, distinct and respectful voice so the recording systems can accurately capture it. Even though your hearing may be by Zoom or telephonically or a combination of the two, it is still a formal proceeding, it is being recorded, a record is being made, the Court will rule upon this record and the recording of the proceeding will be maintained for future proceedings and possibly even an appeal. Just because it is not taking place with everyone in a formal courtroom does not mean the proceedings are any less formal, they are and they need to be treated as such. We still deferred to the Judge to manage and direct the proceedings, we each still waited our turn to be called upon, we still addressed the judge as Your Honor, we each still presented our case and the Court still ruled upon the issues and entered an Order. It was no different than it being “live” in Court. I was even dressed for Court because I knew I would be on the Zoom video and visible to the other participants so I did what I always do when I have Court: dressed appropriately, this time with a formal top and suit jacket (and ok, jeans on the bottom).
- How to talk to your attorney: Whenever I am in Court with clients, I have a routine: I set up my materials for Court and give my client an extra pad of paper, a pen, some tissues if needed, a bottle of water and ask them to write down anything that stands out to them or that is incorrect large enough for me to see it without having to tug my arm and whisper it to me unless necessary. With Zoom Court, it is bit different. There is a “chat” function along with the video conference, but it is only open to the audio/video participants; a litigant being dialed in will not have access to the “chat” and that is absolutely fine because there is nothing privileged about it and we would absolutely not want our clients “chatting” with us in a forum where everyone else can see it, too. For the hearing earlier this week, my client and I agreed to text. That way no one but us knew what we were discussing between us, it was not part of a public chat and it was not spoken out loud on the record for anyone to hear, but my client did not have to go through a hearing feeling they could not communicate with me and I did not have to go through a hearing without their input, it is after all the clients lives. A little unconventional, but we had really no other option and it worked. I was able to communicate with the client and they with me in real time as the hearing unfolded and still maintained privilege.
Zoom Hearings are new for all of us and we will all learn the ropes together. As a litigant, if you are like me and not at all technologically inclined and don’t love change to begin with, do not worry, it wasn’t so bad! It went a lot better than I thought it would and I had a lot of reservations about how I would feel trying to advocate for my client without my usual props, e.g. the courtroom, but I did it and so can you.
Julie Burick, Esq. is a shareholder and partner with ALBFR&M in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Julie has focused her practice on all aspects of family law with particular attention to domestic violence and appellate matters.