Many court proceedings may stay virtual after pandemic

The future of our court system will forever be changed post-pandemic, as remote proceedings have proven to make more sense for some types of cases.

As in so many others parts of life, Zoom has become an integral part of the courtroom, and Judge Joseph Foster in Collier County believes that might continue to be the case. Before the pandemic, there were certain laws that required court to be in person, but that was suspended when the lockdowns hit. The Florida Bar and Supreme Court are looking at making virtual hearings and online streaming more permanent, and the state is also looking at making traffic ticket cases and small claims virtual.

Things like jury trials, of course, will likely continue to be done in person.

“Honestly, there’s a whole bunch of procedural motions we do, or short things, that it’s… rather than driving all the way to the courthouse, spending a half-hour sitting in the courtroom for five minutes with the judge, we can do that on Zoom, we can knock [your proceeding] out, you can continue on with what you’re doing,” Foster said. “I think that’s a tremendous benefit.”

Social distancing and cleaning protocols have limited the amount of trials and hearings judges can do for those that must be done in person, so the state’s court system has asked the legislature for $12.5 million. That money would go to hiring more staff and senior judges to help with the case load.

The good news is that Florida courts have been able to resolve close to 3 million cases during the pandemic. The bad news is that there is still a backlog of 1 million cases waiting to be heard, and Foster says he can only oversee one at a time as opposed to the several he would formerly do in a week.

“The same is going on in the family docket, and so on and so forth,” Foster said. “If you spread that out across the entire state, as you said, that’s a whole lot of individuals, families, defendants that are waiting for what they’re doing. Right now, we are prioritizing the people who are in custody, because we want to get them out as quickly as we can. And then we have the other older cases, that the defendants are out waiting as backup trials.”

The pandemic has also delayed justice for a lot of families, too. Foster works in criminal court, and says he has to prioritize the harshest felonies and people who have been in jail for the longest, which means all other offenders and traffic offenses have been put on the back burner.

Reporter:Dannielle Garcia
Writer:Joey Pellegrino
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