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How COVID has Impacted Courts in Texas

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

Many places in society have long established rules, protocol and codes of conduct.  If you’re traveling by plane you know you have to go through airport security and follow the directions of security staff.  Anyone who’s attending a wedding knows there’s a strict order to the ceremony and a dress code for all guests.  One could argue that courtrooms have the most stringent rules and protocol anywhere.  You speak when the judge addresses you and if you get out of line there’s a bailiff to protect the court.

The COVID pandemic has had a significant impact on how courts in Texas conduct their proceedings.  These long-established rules have had to be re-examined in ways no one thought possible just a year ago.  In order to keep the legal system functioning courts have turned to Zoom, an online conferencing solution.

Prior to the COVID pandemic litigants (including defendants), witnesses, family members and the general public would convene outside the courtrooms until their case, or the case they were interested in seeing, was called.  On any given day, if your case was on docket, it may be heard in the morning or the afternoon.

Since the COVID pandemic things have changed considerably. Courts now have to review their dockets much more closely and be far more precise in scheduling hearings and trials.  Dockets are reviewed weekly to determine:

  • Cases where hearings can be handled by submission only,
  • Cases where hearings can be held remotely or partially remotely and
  • Cases that need to have in person hearings.

Courts in Texas have now implemented staggered dockets for in-person hearings where a week’s worth cases are scheduled for specific times and days.  This is all in an effort to reduce congestion and abide by social distancing rules.  Cases are heard on the basis of priority, with the most pressing matters given a higher priority.

Zoom and Remote Litigant Participation

If you have to appear in court remotely it’s critical that you get familiar with Zoom.  You have to test your computer equipment and internet connection before joining your hearing online.  The best way to do this is by having a test Zoom meeting with your attorney.

You want to avoid any technical issues when you’re in front of the judge.  If you have a technical issue during the hearing, and it can’t be rectified in a timely manner, it may result in the hearing being passed or the judge considering you as failing to appear, which is worse.  Court procedures have changed dramatically since the COVID pandemic, you have to be prepared to attend your hearing from a computer.

Litigants Without Proper Equipment

As surprising as it may seem some households do not have the equipment required to participate in a Zoom meeting.  For those without equipment, some Harris County public libraries have set aside a “Zoom Room” for litigants to join their court hearing.  Not all libraries are offering this service and courts have said that their policies for allowing this type of participation can change without notice.

It’s a good idea to keep in touch with your lawyer to make sure you can attend your hearing remotely or call the court to confirm a “Zoom Room” at a library is still permissible.

Sharing of Zoom Meeting Information

In the business world it’s quite common for a manager to invite a team member to a meeting who was not listed as an attendee.  If any of the litigants share the Zoom meeting information for a court hearing with another, they may find themselves in contempt of court.  This is a serious offence.  In the new world of the COVID pandemic courts now have to technically police all of their hearings to ensure participants are in compliance with their new policies and procedures.

Recording and Live Streaming

In addition to sharing meeting information, there is the more serious offense of recording or live streaming a court hearing.  The 280th Family Protective Order Court in Houston has listed in their COVID policies that if you’re found to record or live stream a court proceeding you could be in violation of Federal Law 18 US 2265.  Given that the 280th District Court deals with court orders protecting spouses who’ve been victims of physical abuse, domestic violence or stalking, it’s not surprising that there’s a strict policy prohibiting the recording or live streaming of hearings.

Many orders in this court are issued “ex parte” which means the other party to the order, the person who abused the spouse, is not aware of the order being granted.  Any dissemination of a court proceeding in this type of case, recorded or live streamed, would deem the order useless as soon as it’s been issued, putting the victim back in harm’s way.

The impact of COVID on the court system in Texas has been significant.  Courts have had to implement new polices and technology, and now oversee and police their proceedings like never before.  Because of all of this it’s no surprise that Zoom posted a 367% increase in revenues in the 3rd quarter 2020.