Impact of COVID-19 on the American Justice System

Like other sectors, the criminal justice system faced significant disruption from the coronavirus. In the first weeks into the pandemic, court proceedings were on hold with the hope that things would get back to normal sooner.

But that was not the case, and the justice system had to adapt to technology to minimize in-person court interactions that put everyone at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Access to A Computer and The Internet Is a Challenge

Virtual proceedings meant that depositions, hearings, jury selection, and evidence presentations would happen online. The greatest challenge for this kind of arrangement was that a significant number of Americans had no access to a reliable internet connection or a computer.

According to a study conducted by BroadbandNow, approximately 42 million Americans do not have access to a high-speed internet connection which is a prerequisite for accessing remote court proceedings. “Court proceedings at the beginning of COVID were chaotic. It took a while to figure out obstacles but I think virtual options benefit people” said David Lish, attorney at Grand Canyon Law Group.

There Are Some Positives

But it is not all gloom. According to a study conducted by Thomson Reuters, 42 percent of respondents think that virtual court hearings have increased access to justice. In comparison, 23 percent think that the hearings have decreased access to justice.

The bottom line is that virtual court proceedings mean that people living in rural America do not need to miss a day of work or drive for hours to attend meetings with a criminal lawyer or a court hearing. This arrangement has resulted in pre-trial and trial hearing attendance and participation by all parties involved.

There are also better times ahead. In August 2020, the Senate passed a 42 billion Infrastructure and Jobs Act to fund broadband network connectivity deployment to areas with little or no internet services. This development is of great significance to law income individuals because while many don’t have access to a computer, almost all have access to a smartphone.

All Players in The Justice System Must Adapt

Under some circumstances, there may be a need to adopt a hybrid approach. But criminal lawyers that have suspended jury trials hoping to return to the normal proceeding may be in for a shock. What began as a temporal measure to cope with the circumstances is slowly becoming a permanent reality in the justice system that every criminal lawyer must embrace.

Challenges brought about by the pandemic presented the US court system with an opportunity to reimagine the administration and management of justice. Traditionally, the justice system has been very reluctant to embrace change, especially regarding anything technology-related. But the over one year that COVID-19 has lingered has proven that it can adapt at a remarkable speed.

ABA’s Position

All evidence points to the increased efficiency of the courts due to the incorporation of technology, a position that even the American Bar Association (ABA) holds. The ABA has gone as far as suggesting that every criminal lawyer has an ethical obligation to consider virtual jury trials, among other creative court procedures, to ensure litigants get speedy access to justice.

Technology in itself is not sufficient to solve all the justice system’s problems. However, it has proved to be an effective tool to help move things.

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