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Court During the COVID-19 Crisis

In 2014, I posted an article that said, “I can easily envision a world a decade out where we reserve face-to-face interaction only for our most intimate friends and family members. The bulk of our professional and public lives will take place online. The idea of driving down to the doctor’s office or to the courthouse will seem as antiquated as getting your water from a well.”

Now, predicting the future is always a dicey proposition, but this particular prediction came true much more quickly than I anticipated. When I wrote those words, I thought the evolution would take place over a period of years or decades, as we slowly migrated most of our professional lives online by choice.

A New Reality

Over the past three months, however, COVID-19 has forced us into this new reality with a sudden shock. As we sit sequestered in our houses, forbidden by the government from interacting with others face-to-face, we have had to figure out how to move our lives online overnight. Many who have long expressed skepticism about the use of online channels for communication are now being forced to relent as the authorities make clear that there are no other options available.

In particular, professionals in the judicial system, including court administrators, lawyers, and judges, have had to figure out in a matter of days how to deliver services online that they have been providing face-to-face for many decades. Some individuals who don’t even own smartphones are being asked to convene multiparty video, audio, and chat-based conferences with parties spread across the county or around the globe. Some are succeeding better than others at clambering up the learning curve, but there’s no choice involved – this change is not optional.

Even though these developments have happened in just the space of a few weeks, the world we inhabited at the beginning of 2020 is likely gone forever.

Post-Pandemic Impact

The changes we are making to enable online interactions will not reverse once the crisis ends. Once our society, and to that end, our justice system, figures out how to move online, there will be no going back.

I want to be clear that I am not somehow rooting for this development. The potential human toll of this pandemic is almost inconceivable. As tens or hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives, and tens of millions lose their jobs, this is unquestionably a catastrophe on the scale of the World Wars of the Twentieth Century. The real heroes are the medical providers on the front lines selflessly putting their lives at risk for others. But there are wider psychological harms to acknowledge as well: suspicion of strangers, paranoia that the virus could be anywhere at any time, and a fear of financial risk as savings disappear and unemployment rises. We must all come together to do what we can to restrain the spread of the disease and get through this crisis together.

While we correctly focus on health care at this time, we also cannot overlook the impact on the justice system. As a result of the pandemic, courts around the country are blocking filings and delaying judicial proceedings, such as pausing all evictions for 90 days. The courts were already struggling with existing caseloads before the crisis, and now they are going to be burdened with this additional backlog once processes resume, whenever that eventually occurs. Combined with the huge number of newly laid-off citizens, the caseload in the courts may eventually swell to unprecedented levels, and citizens will not be able to wait years for issues to be resolved. (As the saying goes, a civil case delayed long enough is at risk of becoming a criminal case).

Resolution Corps

Some states have taken the initiative to launch volunteer teams to help combat the COVID-19 crisis, like California’s Health Corps.

I think this is an excellent idea, but we need to take it further.

I think those of us in the legal and dispute resolution communities should launch a Resolution Corps to help handle the coming influx of cases into the courts and legal service bureaus. Courts and dispute resolution providers have created mediation and resolution programs in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina to resolve cases quickly and effectively. The impact from the pandemic will be larger than those events by a factor of 1000. We need to prepare systems to help resolve issues around employment, housing, health care, and family in order to help our country and our world get through this crisis.

The good news is that we do not have to invent these systems from scratch. Tools already exist that provide tested, scalable platforms that can respond quickly. Private and public dispute resolution organizations have trained panels of mediators and arbitrators ready to help.

Working together, we can reach out to those in need and help them find solutions that deliver justice and treat them fairly.

We are all going to have to pitch in together to get through this unprecedented period. It is not going to be easy, and we do not yet know how and when it will end. But this is a time that calls for all of us to step up and do what we can. I am ready to answer that call, alongside all of you.

Let’s get to work.

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