How COVID-19 Has Affected the Legal System
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How COVID-19 Has Affected the Legal System

 

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the majority of aspects of life, from going to the grocery store, to getting together with friends and family. Therefore, it is not surprising that the pandemic has changed the legal system and how courts conduct business. What is surprising, is that the results have led to positive changes in addition to the expected negative changes.

Negative Legal Changes Resulting From COVID-19

For some courts, the majority of legal proceedings have moved online. Depositions, hearings, jury selection, and trials can now be conducted virtually instead of in person. For others, a hybrid arrangement has been put in place to allow for both virtual and traditional participation.

However, this has led to a variety of problems, outlined below:

  • Access to Technology – Individuals from low-income households or who live in rural areas may not have the technology necessary to virtually participate in court, such as broadband internet or a smartphone.
  • Evidence Buildup – More advanced technology has increased the amount of evidence available for any given case, which in turn leads to backups as courts struggle to process videos, audio files, and other multimedia
  • Case Backlogs – The majority of courts struggled with case backlogs before the pandemic, but these backlogs boomed when courts had to briefly close down last year; playing catch-up has proven difficult

Some of these problems predate the pandemic and have only been exacerbated by it, whereas others were directly caused by COVID-19 and are likely to be resolved once related restrictions are lifted.

Positive Legal Changes Resulting From COVID-19

The recent changes in court proceedings are dual-sided: while there are undoubtedly some negative components, there are many positive aspects to these same changes. The way the changes affect many people is linked to their access to technology and difference in wages.

Below is a breakdown of the positive effects resulting from these changes:

  • Access to Justice – According to Thomson Reuters, 42 percent of people felt that virtual hearings increased access to justice in state and local courts, even in areas that suffer from chronic backlogs
  • Increased Flexibility – Previously, going to court or meeting with a lawyer, meant taking time off work and driving to the courthouse or an office; now, individuals can meet virtually and save time, money, and gas
  • Better Turnout – Because technology has made legal proceedings more accessible, recent months have seen increased attendance in civil court and pre-trial and trial hearings.
  • Streamlined Operations – Besides benefiting individuals, technology has helped the legal system overall by streamlining daily operations and making processes like submitting evidence more efficient

How the end of the pandemic, when it comes, will affect these positive effects is not entirely certain. Ideally, the courts will begin addressing negative results without undoing positive changes.

Future Legal Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as an unexpected experiment for many industries. For example, the job sector has pushed companies to expand their telework offerings and transition to a hybrid schedule for employees. This has been a more drastic and difficult change for the legal system, as an industry known for long-standing traditions is thrust into the digital age.

But despite this culture shock, the resulting changes could lead to positive, long-term change. Though the pandemic has led to even worse case backlogs, implementing court-wide case processing systems could help reduce and even eliminate backlogs over time. Similarly, allowing file-sharing platforms and transitioning to electronic filing systems will reduce manual processing time and create more efficient processes.

The takeaway is that, despite the short-term negative side effects, the pandemic could potentially improve the legal system overall if the courts are willing to step away from tradition and integrate more modern technologies.

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