Remote court hearings: the new normal for Pennsylvania?

March 21, 2021

It has been six long, excruciating months of shutdowns for Pennsylvania courts since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic. To reduce the risk of spreading the virus, only the most pressing cases have warranted in-person court hearings. With the infection rate gradually slowing, the court system has taken steps to reopen a few courthouses, increase the number of staff and visitors allowed and hear more cases.

However, the state is nowhere near returning to normal proceedings. Until the pandemic draws to a close, the court system is adjusting to a new normal: remote hearings.

 An increase in remote hearings

Courthouses are frequently packed with people, including security guards, litigants, attorneys, judges, witnesses and spectators. In-person court hearings pose a high risk of infection. Allegheny County has adapted by holding some civil hearings via remote technology.

Technology such as Zoom, Skype and Facetime have allowed civil hearings to proceed, albeit slower than previously. The critical parties attend the hearing via video chat or through old-fashioned conference calls. Remote hearings—nearly unheard of before the pandemic—have skyrocketed.

New format brings challenges and advantages

Those who have participated in remote court hearings say that the format brings its own advantages and disadvantages. Some advantages include:

  • No risk of COVID-19 infection
  • Participate from the comfort home or office
  • Scheduling is often more convenient
  • No need for travel or parking

However, these hearings are not without drawbacks. These include:

  • Technology delays, breakdowns and other remote difficulties
  • Lack of context provided by face-to-face interactions
  • At-home setting can prove distracting
  • Risks to confidentiality

Granted, the disadvantages for one party could prove an advantage for the other. If, say, a plaintiff or defendant is unprepared, a lapse in technology could provide more time to reflect on their testimony.

The new normal… for now

The end of the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight. For the upcoming weeks—and possibly months—remote access technology in court proceedings will only increase. This format certainly has its ups and downs, but, for the time being, attorneys and their clients must adapt quickly to this new normal.

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