With the COVID-19 crisis essentially behind us now (please don’t start on the Delta variant) the Utah courts are re-opening the courthouses. And there’s nothing wrong with that . . . unless the gains and improvements that COVID-19 forced us to invent and develop get cast aside, which is what I fear may occur in the field of divorce and domestic relations law.
The COVID-19 quarantine forced the legal system to find a way to handle its caseload without forcing people to come into personal, close contact in the courthouses. And the legal system found a way: Zoom, or more accurately, remote appearances via video or telephone conferences through a variety of platforms.
But it came as no surprise to me that remote appearances didn’t merely keep the wheels of justice turning, it oiled and polished the axles, tuned-up the process of appearing for court proceedings, and resulted in faster, smoother, and less expensive ride. Lawyers didn’t have to bill for travel to and from the courthouses, clients and pro se litigants didn’t have to take a half or whole day off from work to appear in court, just to name a few of the benefits.
Are there enough domestic relations litigants and their attorneys who want to go back to the courthouses for in-person appearances, and enough compelling reasons to justify resuming the practice of going to the courthouses for the majority of court business? I don’t believe there are.
Full disclosure: I oppose resuming the practice of going to court as a routine matter in divorce and other domestic relations cases. I see no benefit to anyone (including, but in no way limited to, the judges and commissioners) in doing so. I know from my conversations with my fellow domestic relations attorneys that most of us feel this way.
Indeed, I assert that those who want to go back to pre-COVID-19 practices want to do so for self-serving and counterproductive purposes (i.e., 1) increased billing for travel to and from court and for all the fruitless waiting in the courthouse until it’s our turn in the courtroom and sometimes 2) inconveniencing and burdening the opposing party/counsel by making them blow a half or whole day getting ready for, missing work for, traveling to, and appearing in court in far flung places), not for the sake of better customer service, of making the legal system more user friendly and efficient, or for the purpose of improving the administration of justice. Deny it all you want, but we all know the truth.
Clearly, there are situations where a hearing by WebEx would be inadequate, even perhaps prejudicial, but for proffer hearings, review hearings, conferences (as opposed to evidentiary hearings/trials where it may be better to have everyone present in the courthouse), and the like, a significant percentage (I’d assert the majority) of domestic relations work simply does not require or warrant the costs and burdens associated with personal appearances in a courthouse.
WebEx/remote appearance has made it easier, more convenient, and less expensive for divorce and domestic relations litigants, clients, attorneys, and courts to handle so much court business and to handle it better. To discontinue the use of remote appearances would be a giant leap backward.
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