In a letter to lawyers yesterday, leaders of the state trial and appeals courts announced their court buildings will likely remain shut through at least the end of June, but that trials probably won't restart until September, due to Covid-19 concerns.
Still, as judges and lawyers have gotten better adept at online justice, there will be fewer delays in pre-trial hearings and conferences as those move to videoconferences and phone calls, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green and Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey wrote yesterday.
We expect that courthouses will physically reopen this summer, but only in stages and only for certain matters that require in-person appearances. Even as courthouses reopen, we will still need to conduct most court business virtually to reduce the number of lawyers, litigants, and court personnel that come to the courthouse, so that those who must come can do so safely with the necessary social distancing. The days when our Trial Court welcomed approximately 40,000 persons a day into our courthouses are over, at least for the duration of the pandemic. ...
We hope that, in September, if schools reopen, we will once again begin to conduct jury trials. But the challenges of conducting jury trials with social distancing during a pandemic are formidable, and will require us to reimagine how juries are empaneled, where they will sit during trial, and where they will deliberate so that jurors can both be safe and feel safe. We are hard at work trying to address those challenges, and it is premature to predict now what it will look like.
The justices continued that, in the long run, the changes made to accommodate online justice will turn out to be a good thing:
Long before the pandemic, we recognized that the civil courts of the future would need to resolve an increasing number and range of matters without burdening attorneys, litigants, and witnesses with the need to come to a courthouse. By doing so, we would enable attorneys to reduce the time (and therefore the cost) devoted to litigation, spare self-represented litigants from the need to miss work or find child or elder care, and allow civil disputes to be resolved equally thoughtfully but more efficiently. Before the pandemic, we expected that it would take years to make substantial progress in this regard; with the pandemic, we have made substantial progress in just a few months. Therefore, even when this pandemic is behind us, we do not believe we will or should go back to doing things as we did in February. We are, more quickly than many thought we could and with some stumbles along the way, creating a more modern and efficient court system that will survive after the pandemic has passed.