How COVID-19 Has Changed Our Legal System
It’s been a year since Covid-19 caused so many changes in our everyday life. Let’s face it – the COVID-19 pandemic will leave its mark on the world forever, long after the virus itself has been dealt with. Vaccines are rolling out and everything is opening back up, but many things will never be quite the same. Certain industries have risen to new heights while others may never recover, working from home has become easier than ever before, and cleanliness has become a public standard. Naturally, the rise of the ‘new normal’ has affected our court system as well. Non-essential hearings and state jury trials may be back, but Georgia’s courts may still be changed forever.
You can choose not to go to the store, but you cannot opt out of appearing before a judge. Naturally, when the pandemic hit, our court system had to adapt and change to remain operational. The use of video technology has become widespread, filing documents electronically has become easier than ever, and it is now possible to fill out many legal documents entirely online. Contact the Don Turner Legal Team if you have questions about how these new developments could affect your own court case.
Court Hearings and Jail Visits From Home
2020 was a great year for Zoom and other video conferencing software – what was once a fairly niche tool became a widespread standard once social distancing became a necessity. It was only a matter of time before Georgia courts got in on the action, and now that they have, virtual court hearings may be here to stay. Our courts are now equipped with virtual computer technology that allows judges to hold hearings through video conferencing, allowing you to attend court from the comfort of your living room.
A decline in novel coronavirus cases has prompted Chief Justice Harold D. Melton to lift the suspension of in-person jury trials, provided they follow certain safety measures, including temperature checks, plexiglass barriers, and touch-free evidence technology. Even then, judges are still encouraged to hold virtual hearings whenever possible. Video-conferencing has become a judge’s new best friend, and it is likely that virtual hearings will, when feasible, become a standard alternative to in-person hearings.
Court isn’t the only thing you can attend from home these days. Concerns about the transmission of COVID-19 in jails has led to an increased demand for video visitation. Many jails in Georgia are now equipped with video conferencing systems, making it easier than ever for imprisoned clients to get in touch with their attorneys. Better yet, attorneys can set up profiles within these systems, allowing them to ensure the video visitation is not monitored and that attorney-client privilege is still being adhered to.
Don Turner Legal Team has also taken necessary steps to ensure we are able to offer virtual consultations to potential clients, and virtual case meetings for current clients. This ensures everyone has an option for face-to-face communication in which they are comfortable with.
No Pen and Ink? No Problem!
Jail visitations and court appearances are not the only things going digital. A decline in in-person attorney-client interactions has made signing physical paperwork more difficult. Enter e-signature programs, such as DocuSign. Georgia has allowed electronic signatures to have the same legal weight as their pen and ink counterparts since 2009, and the legal system has taken full advantage of this since the beginning of the pandemic. Many legal documents can now be filled out completely digitally, no attorney-client meetup or physical delivery required.
Be aware that although Georgia law allows for e-signatures on documents to be accepted, it does not require it. Georgia’s e-signature law includes exceptions for certain documents, including wills and other estate planning documents. These documents will require a “wet” or physical signature. Contact your attorney if you have any questions or concerns about whether or not a document can be e-signed.
E-signing becoming more widespread is great news for both attorneys and clients – but don’t forget about e-filing! The pandemic has slowed down our mailing system and led many court clerks to work remotely, making processing paperwork more difficult. With that in mind, many Georgia courts have expanded their e-filing systems, allowing attorneys to scan and submit their paperwork with just a few clicks of the mouse. Getting important documents filed away with the court has never been easier.
What Comes Next?
Georgia is on the road to recovery from the novel coronavirus pandemic, and businesses are slowly opening back up. Our courts are no exception to this rule. Even then, do not expect everything to return to how it was before. Judges and attorneys alike have grown used to video-conferencing technology and the benefits it offers, including increased convenience, along with less time and money spent on travel. Now that this infrastructure is in place, it is very likely here to stay.
In-person meetings and court hearings are slowly making a comeback, and some types of court hearings will have no choice but to be in-person. For example, remote jury trials are very unlikely to work for a wide number of reasons. However, your court may at least offer the option to attend other hearings, such as your arraignment, remotely in the future. Be certain to ask your court if that is an option available to you.
You can also expect to see law firms and courts become more reliant on technology. 2020 has allowed courts and law firms alike to become much more comfortable with e-filing, e-signing, and remote hearings. Lawyers have more ways to communicate securely and remotely with clients than ever these days, leading many law firms to open virtual offices or even consider going entirely digital. Many businesses have asked themselves how much office space they really need, law firms included.
Why does an attorney need to physically meet with an imprisoned client? Why do all court hearings need to be in person? How can we use technology to improve how our legal system works? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced our legal system to step back, ask these questions, and push to innovate. 2020 showed our courts and our law firms that change is both necessary and possible. What developments will 2021 offer for our legal system? It remains to be seen, but it’s definitely something to look forward to.