NJ Courts See Remote Hearings In Post-Pandemic Future

New Jersey judicial officials said Friday they are considering holding motion hearings and other proceedings remotely on a general basis going forward, marking how the coronavirus outbreak might reshape state courts once the pandemic is over.

In seeking comments on what they called the "future of court operations," officials laid out a proposal "to continue certain court events in a primarily or presumptively remote format even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a notice to the state bar.

The proposal is "intended to apply to the ongoing future of court operations and is not presented as a short-term or interim approach," the notice states.

Among the proposed changes, motion arguments and case management conferences would generally be held remotely in "all trial divisions of the Superior Court and the Municipal Courts," the notice states. The same would go for certain other criminal, civil, family and municipal court matters, including landlord-tenant proceedings and civil arbitrations, the notice states.

Officials also identified several matters that could only occur remotely "with the consent of all parties, except that the consent of a party will not be required if the party is absent and unreachable," according to the notice. Those proceedings include evidentiary hearings and bench trials in criminal cases, sentencing hearings in criminal and other matters, and "evidentiary hearings and trials in municipal matters that involve a reasonable likelihood of a jail sentence or loss or suspension of license," the notice states.

"In all matters, judges may determine to proceed in person where the participants have demonstrated an inability to proceed in a remote format, or in other exceptional circumstances," according to the notice.

Judges would be able to allow one or more participants in an in-person hearing to take part remotely, "based on the individual facts and circumstances of the case," the notice states. If a proceeding is set to occur remotely, a judge could accommodate a participant who asks to take part in person, the notice states.

Oral arguments before the New Jersey Supreme Court and the state Appellate Division "will primarily be conducted in person," according to the notice.

The proposal is not designed to apply to jury proceedings. With public health conditions improving as more New Jerseyans get vaccinated, officials last month began holding grand jury sessions, and certain criminal and civil jury trials in person.

As part of those procedures, jury selections for civil trials are done in a completely virtual format, whereas jury selections for criminal trials start virtually and then continue with a final in-person phase.

In Friday's notice, officials said they "intend to return to primarily in-person jury proceedings as soon as it is safe to do so."

"To that end, this notice announces that the statewide juror summons documents (for both jury trials and grand juries) will be modified for reporting dates on or after September 7, 2021," the notice states. "The revised summons will inform prospective jurors that they may be required to report virtually or in person."

The latest proposal for remote and in-person proceedings marks another turning point for a court system that has largely operated online and by phone for more than a year due to the pandemic.

Officials pointed out in the notice that the judiciary at each level "successfully adapted to remote operations during the extended COVID-19 crisis, conducting more than 212,000 virtual court proceedings that involved more than 2.9 million participants."

Garden State lawyers and "other court users, including advocates for self-represented litigants and persons with disabilities, have expressed appreciation for the option to participate in court events in a remote format," the notice states.

"Stakeholders specifically have requested that certain routine court matters continue to be conducted remotely so as to reduce time and money costs for attorneys, clients, and court users who otherwise would be required to miss work, school, or other obligations," according to the notice.

As officials ponder holding certain proceedings in a remote format, they also announced Friday plans to reopen all state court locations to the public, thereby ending temporary public access restrictions that were imposed as a result of the pandemic.

In a separate notice to the bar, officials said that, as of Aug. 2, "individuals may be present in court locations regardless of their involvement in a scheduled court proceeding and without the need for an appointment."

At the same time, the on-site presence of judges and court staffers will go up, the notice states. As of Aug. 2, the judiciary "will resume 75% on-site court presence in all state court locations," and then increase to "100% on-site staff presence" as of Sept. 7, according to the notice.

"Additionally, scheduled in-person court events will continue to expand gradually, with the support of those additional on-site court personnel and consistent with any necessary social distancing considerations," the notice states.

--Editing by Regan Estes.


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