These are extremely challenging times for communities across the United States and the entire world. It’s heartbreaking to hear the stories of those who have lost friends and loved ones to COVID-19. At the same time, it’s awe-inspiring to see the way that Americans have made countless personal sacrifices to flatten the curve, slow the spread of this disease, and save lives.
Confronted with quarantines and social distancing requirements, we have seen businesses, courts, and governments adapt to these unprecedented times. Many businesses have embraced delivery and curbside pickup options. Governments have found ways to conduct public hearings and meetings by videoconference to ensure that essential operations can continue with transparency and public access.
What is also striking is that courts and the legal profession have embraced these unprecedented times to make changes to ensure that the public still has access to justice. Few professions have been more resistant to change than the legal system. In many countries, the legal system seems to be stuck in the Middle Ages where barristers still wear ridiculous powdered wigs to judicial proceedings.
Because of this historical resistance to change, the fact that Courts in Michigan, including the Michigan Supreme Court, have embraced videoconferencing technology and e-filing to allow Michiganders access to justice is even more striking. This past Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court conducted its first ever set of oral arguments by Zoom videoconference. From watching the video, you would think that this is standard practice for the Court, as the Justices and the attorneys did not seem to miss a beat. The Michigan Supreme Court has also issued administrative orders to provide guidelines for trial courts across the state to utilize videoconferencing technology in a way that safeguards the constitutional rights of the parties while ensuring that the justice system can continue to function.
Trial courts across the State of Michigan are also utilizing videoconference technology to allow judges, attorneys, and parties to conduct hearings and keep cases moving forward. Like most human interactions, in-person meetings are preferable and add additional value. However, for many hearings or routine court appearances, the added value provided by having the attorneys or parties physically present may be nominal. The fact that Courts have been forced to utilize and evaluate videoconferencing technology may pave the way for added acceptance in using this technology once we emerge from this crisis. There are substantial benefits to embracing technology in the delivery of legal services, such as reduced costs and attorney fees and increased access to justice. Courts across the State of Michigan should strongly consider adding videoconferencing technology to their permanent toolkits moving forward.
Everyone is anxious for things to return to “normal,” but, when we do, let’s learn from these experiences and incorporate the innovations into our new normal. These are tough times for everyone. We should do our best to learn and create positive change from this crisis where we can. After all, we could all use some good news and optimism right about now.
An associate attorney with Grewal Law PLLC in Okemos, Michigan, John Fraser focuses on general litigation, criminal defense, cannabis law, and appellate law. John is also an adjunct professor of law at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School where he teaches a course on Medical Marijuana and the Law.