A COVID-19 year in review: Courts, juries and technology
Happy anniversary. It’s been about one year now since the world was introduced to the coronavirus pandemic. What else can we say? This is as good a time as any to reflect on the changes to the world, especially to the world of law.
Good start. Or is it? Our court system in the province of Ontario, like others no doubt, has been all over the place. Courts were closed, then opened via electronic communication and then for in-person business (somewhat) but with stringent guidelines for admission and operation.
Before appearing in court in person, there is an online questionnaire you must fill out regarding whether you have COVID-19 symptoms, have been in contact with infected persons or traveled in the past 14 days, etc. You will then get an answer in green, such as, “Entry permitted” or in red, such as, “Are you kidding?”
Even if you pass this test, you are still subject to additional screening at the courthouse entrance, with a security monitor taking your temperature. I don’t have more detail, but rumor has it that because a loss of sense of smell is a possible virus symptom, the monitor administers a special test, asking you to close your eyes while he dangles before your nose a hunk of Limburger. Personally, I would fear this test more than the virus.
Limited jury trials have taken place in some regions of Ontario and not at all in others. I have great concerns about the welfare of jurors. Many colleagues suggest the pandemic may be the death knell for juries in civil cases. Who knows? I’m not so sure the Magna Carta in 1215 would have raved about juries had its proponents known jurors would have to sit separated from one another by plexiglass.
The jury pool is made up of citizens who show up at the courthouse after receiving a letter from the local sheriff here demanding they so attend (for virtually no pay and certainly not at their convenience). The letter notes that if they do want want to or cannot attend, the lucky recipients can write back to the sheriff explaining why they want an exemption. Reasons might include disabilities, a criminal background and certain exempt occupational categories such as lawyers, doctors or police officers. Oh yes, also exempt are sheriffs—now isn’t that a job to die for!
Given the pandemic, it would not surprise me if some of the responses to the sheriff read as follows:
I am sending this letter to the courthouse address as instructed, though if you are working from your house, I trust that it will reach you quickly. Normally, I wouldn’t mind spending hours sitting in a crowded room with other potential jurors, but there are rumors out there about a pandemic. I have some concerns.
I have reservations about sitting in a courtroom all day, gagging on a mask. I may also be a bit distracted from focusing on the evidence while eyeballing others there who might be coughing.
If you still want me, I am at your service. But do you really want anyone sitting on a jury who is crazy enough to actually show up?
That might just do the trick.
Three technological advances changed the legal world in 2020: Zoom, Zoom and Zoom.
Though I am no longer in practice, I do Zoom here and there or try to with frustration, given my psychological condition—I’m a clinical technophobe. Most apps simply don’t like me. I’m certain, in fact, that Apple and Google are out to get me. I get a message such as, “Forgot your password?” but I don’t see an option to reply, “No, I did not forget; I am entering it correctly. You guys are jerking me around.”
Sometimes, I have to confirm that I am not a robot. What bothers me most is that I am probably dealing with a robot to start with. I now have to confirm I am not one of him.
Zoom isn’t perfect either—and neither are its users. We have all heard of accidental instances where unwanted unmuted sounds come out or parties are smoking cigars, or seen compromised, seated comfortably in the smallest room in their house. And just recently, a Texas lawyer appeared through a filter, looking like a puddy tat. At least he agreed he imported some humor, making lawyers appear more human.
Other parties have been known to wear jackets and ties but no pants. I wonder: If Zoom becomes a new normal, will the haberdashery industry change and come up with one-piece suits? Will it adapt and follow suit? (No apology offered!)
The garments will have to come with a caution label: “Warning. This suit is for Zoom purposes only. Not designed for complete coverage. Do not wear by itself when leaving your house.”
I am thinking about Charles Holland Duell, the commissioner of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell’s most famous attributed utterance is, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Yikes, I would not have gone to him to have my palm read. You might say this guy was the opposite of Nostradamus.
The past year also has seen changes in how law students take their exams. Many schools and bars have switched from in-person to online testing.
Exams when I was a student always entailed some element of concern about cheating. I have no clue how cheating would be accomplished online. I am trying to visualize the possibilities, and what I see is an app called something like “Cheata.” If you get stuck on a question, you click on it and a video appears on your screen showing a student taking the same exam you are, and he turns around and says, “Pssst. Look over my shoulder.”
If you miss it, ask again and he says, “Do it quickly. The exam proctor is coming around.”
Hey, don’t laugh. All conceivable. Don’t be skeptical like Duell. Speaking of which, Duell later became Justice Duell, an associate justice of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
I’d give anything to see the look on Duell’s face, wherever he might be now. I wouldn’t want to actually go there, of course. I would want to see that look on his face from my present location, via Zoom. Naturally.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. Read more of Strigberger’s work at marcelshumour.com, and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.