An attorney was one of the first to make news for testing positive with Covid-19. As a litigator, it resounded strongly with me. We walk into courtrooms full of attorneys- some small groups of 10-20, others large crowds of 50 or more. Sometimes we’re there for over an hour. Sometimes we walk into multiple courtrooms within a courthouse in the same morning- sometimes different buildings. We often greet each other with a handshake. We sit in small rooms, maybe without windows, for hours with multiple strangers, conducting depositions.
When NY was told to “shut down”, initially, the courts remained open for only “Essential” business- criminal matters and those dealing with public safety, including those having to do with mental health issues. What had to be done was done “virtually”. Some lawyers remained working at their office throughout the shut down. Others of us, who conduct general civil litigation, were told we could not work from the office. Everyone had to scramble to reach their IT group and set up remote access. Not as easy as it sounds. Not every client phone number is saved in our computers. Some attorneys had to give out their personal phone numbers. And not every client has an email account. Mail was being rerouted from offices to boss’ homes. In some cases, employees were taking turns going to the office. Much of the group dynamic typical in law offices was lost. People were forced to accept that their problems were not going to be resolved by the courts during this pandemic, unless they had already been close to a resolution.
Most civil litigation matters were deemed “non-essential”, and so attorneys were not permitted to file documents to move existing cases forward. Deadlines were literally erased. No new matters were permitted to be filed. This restriction was lifted in late May/ June. Rather quickly, the court system opened up. Judges took this time to start reviewing their caseload, in an attempt to work through the backlog. The Chief Judge issued frequent video updates on court functions. Conferences were either Virtually-held or were adjourned. Arguments at the state’s highest court were heard “Virtually”. Eventually, courts permitted attorneys to file documents to existing cases. An entire new system for electronic document filing was created, to complement the one that already exists. New matters were finally permitted to be filed only a few weeks before offices were permitted to reopen. Adjourned cases are now coming to be heard, remotely, in July. Many litigators have often insisted the ride to the courthouse is a waste of time, the conferences could’ve been conducted by phone. Well now that may become the norm.
Even before “Virtual courts” were up and running, a pro bono network to assist the public with pandemic issues was operating. Courthouses began reopening across the state during the third week in May. However, only half of the courtrooms are being used, and only 25 % capacity Is permitted to occupy each. As of July 6, everyone entering courthouses must be questioned and have their temperatures checked. The Court system overall, quickly adapted to the situation, and showed how the wheels of justice will always, turn.