Brevard courts battle pandemic through video conferencing

Video conferences have become a staple in courts during the pandemic.

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida and Brevard County last March, the courts were forced to close for several weeks, producing a severe backlog of civil and criminal cases.

But since reopening in late July 2020, many court appearances, conferences, calendar calls and hearings have been held thanks to the latest technology in video conferencing.

The use of video conferencing has not just come about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts have been using the technology as a way to connect with parties who might otherwise be unavailable.

For example, Immigration courts have been using video conference technology for many years. Often times, detainees are held hundreds of miles from immigration courts.

But as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, court officials have discovered that video conferencing could be a cost-saving measure in many circumstances.

Michelle Kennedy, a public information officer for the 18th Florida Judicial Circuit Court at the Moore Justice Center at 2825 Judge Fran Jamieson Way in Viera, said it’s been amazing the way everyone’s adapting to using video conferencing.

“The courts are an essential service to the community,” she said. “So when the pandemic hit we had to immediately kick in our emergency plan — video conferencing.”

Kennedy said judges and lawyers are using the Microsoft Teams program to set up video conferencing.

“Attorneys are spending less time traveling back and forth to the courthouse for what many times is a five-minute hearing,” said Brevard County Judge Charlie Crawford. “We still face the challenge of seeing faces, having witnesses appear by Teams that are not familiar with the program.”

Crawford said many judges and lawyers are well adapted to using Microsoft Teams and the need to control the mute button.

“I will continue to allow virtual appearance after the pandemic for any non-evidentiary hearings, docket soundings, status hearings and calendar call,” the judge said.

Brevard County Judge David C. Koenig said attorneys have adapted to the technology by learning and utilizing the ability to conduct hearings via Microsoft Teams. “Some (attorneys) still object to hearings conducted electronically, however, with clear communication at the onset of the hearing as to the specifics such as how the court handles objections, evidence and other matters, court proceedings can run smoothly and efficiently.”

Koenig said one example of the efficiency of video conferencing that has thrived during the pandemic is the county’s Veterans Treatment Court.

“Virtual hearings were made available to those veterans in the Veterans Treatment Court in June after a few short months of court hearings,” he said. “Even with Veterans Treatment Court hearings temporarily postponed at the beginning of the pandemic, the Veterans Administration, other mental health agencies, and Veterans Treatment Court team members were readily available virtually or telephonically for continued support to our veterans.

Koenig said Microsoft Teams was used by the Veterans Treatment Court for staffing and court proceedings and while it was a learning curve for many, it has become part of the program’s norm.

“Using Teams helped keep veterans that were considered high risk for COVID remain safe and compliant with the program. It also has benefited those veterans who suffer from mental health issues that might normally prevent them from being able to come to court in person,” the judge added.

Brevard County Judge Michelle Vitt Baker said there have been positive signs from the changes made during the pandemic. The judge said the courtroom facilities are being cleaned several times a day which provides a cleaner, more sanitary environment for staff, attorneys and litigants.

“I for one will continue to offer to conduct civil hearings via electronic or telephonic means,” she said. “It saves money and time for the attorneys and the litigants, less travel time, and hopefully less stress. It has been most useful and very accommodating for uncontested divorce hearings. Several attorneys want to continue with this practice.”

Although a majority of video conferencing is done with civil court issues, some virtual appearances are done in the criminal division.

Video conferencing might be a staple in Brevard County courts for years to come.

“Because of its success, I think once the pandemic is over and we get to Phase 4 (back to normal), I think we’re going to see a hybrid situation where we use both video conferencing and people returning to court,“ Kennedy said.