By Martin Sliwinski, Divorce and Family Law Attorney
The Court’s use of Zoom reached the public eye in the past year—and not always for the right reasons. In February, an attorney appeared on Zoom with a filter that turned his entire face into a cat, causing him to famously proclaim to the Judge, “I am not a cat.” As a result, Judge Roy Ferguson tweeted to warn individuals of filters in Zoom.
In November, a doctor from Chicago flashed a gun during a bankruptcy hearing via Zoom. The Court found the Chicago doctor in contempt of the Court, as it is contempt to have a weapon in a court of law—even over Zoom.
These are just two of many stories involving embarrassment, questionable decision-making and improper behavior of clients and attorneys on Zoom. So with all these horror stories in the news, are most court systems eagerly scheduling the return to in-person court proceedings immediately?
The answer is: not really. From the public information we have now, Zoom is here to stay indefinitely.
Are Illinois Courts staying remote?
In the domestic relations side of the law, future court dates are still being set with the expectation that they will occur via Zoom.
Illinois courts control their own courtrooms on an individual basis. Some judges have started to require more involved court dates to occur in person, like full-day hearings and trial dates. But the vast majority of litigation in Illinois still takes place via the digital courtroom within Zoom.
What are the benefits of Zoom court?
For many reasons, digital court can be positive for everyone involved:
- Zoom court dates generally save both attorneys and clients alike in terms of costs, since attorneys no longer travel from courtroom to courtroom, from county to county, and back to the office.
- Exhibits are no longer printed out—but instead provided to the Judge over email.
- Scheduling is also substantially easier, as attorneys can “travel” from county to county at a moment’s notice via Zoom courtroom, meaning that clients can obtain earlier court dates.
- Zoom court dates can begin instantaneously and end instantaneously, speeding the process up for all parties involved.
Does Zoom provide due process and credibility?
Many clients are concerned about how a Judge can ascertain someone’s credibility through a screen, and how due process can be achieved online. Is there not some sort of loss when a judge cannot look at a witness in person? Fortunately, Zoom has been resoundingly found not to be a violation of due process.
Due process is the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter. When the administrative office of the circuit court said that all Illinois courts were to be conducted by video conference, the circuit court indicated that Zoom still provides an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter.
Zoom also provides for due process where there otherwise would be none—because before widespread vaccinations were available, the alternative was to not hold court at all. Zoom offers a means to have legal complaints heard without subjecting anyone to the COVID-19 virus.
Moreover, judges can effectively ascertain credibility by examining parties over Zoom during direct examinations or cross examinations. As long as the person uses a camera and the judge has a complete view of them, judges still have the full ability to examine facial expressions, gestures, habits and other potential physical reactions—allowing the judge to assign credibility (or not) to a person on the stand.
What if technology fails during Zoom court?
Another common worry is the inevitable technological faults associated with conducting a court proceeding online. Internet access can randomly fail any of us due to things outside of our control. Zoom is also susceptible to hackers and individuals who have bad intentions relating to court proceedings.
However, virtual court is on a quick rise of reliability, safety and security. Most of these problems are fixable in the long term.
What if clients don’t have reliable access to the internet?
Perhaps the most valid concern about Zoom court is the lack of access to good internet and reliable technology. Internet access can be expensive and a luxury to some people.
While this concern is quite valid, it’s also true that, for many, it’s easier to quickly log into a Zoom call than take the morning off work, find transportation to the courtroom and back, and make childcare arrangements. The barriers to attending any or all given court dates is greatly reduced, and the opportunity cost of logging into the Zoom is as low as making sure you have the proper attire on to attend a court proceeding—which would be necessary in person or virtually. We are seeing an increase in participation of clients at a level much greater than prior to COVID-19.
How long will Court be on Zoom?
While Zoom is not unilaterally popular with the courts, there is a real push for its stay for the reasons stated above and many more. With time, individuals will become increasingly comfortable with proper Zoom etiquette and procedure.
It is seemingly more and more unlikely that the courts will return to in-person only and disregard digital court options, as access to justice only increases when we utilize technology to remove barriers to the legal process. Therefore, it is no surprise that future dates continue to be scheduled for Zoom, and that there is no currently defined end to Zoom’s involvement in the legal process.
Contact Our Divorce and Family Law Firm in Evanston, Chicago, Lake Forest and Oak Brook
If you’re worried about what a divorce or family law case might look like for you in Zoom court, my colleagues and I are eager to answer your questions and support you through the process.