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Virtual Courtrooms Causing Legal Challenges to Arise

Court districts across the nation are going viral in an attempt to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

This includes the Cook County Circuit Court, who has rapidly adopted virtual court hearings, with attorneys, judges, court reporters and translators all communicating virtually over video conferencing from their homes or offices.

Family Members Describe Virtual Courtrooms as “Inhumane”

While the move has been deemed safer, some criminal defendants and family members, like Dashawn Parks, find the process to be cumbersome.

“It’s miserable,” said Parks. He arrived at the George Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Friday to attend his son Rashae’s bond hearing but left when he learned that the hearing was going to take place over video and that he wouldn’t be able to see his son in person.

He explained that although he could have joined his son’s hearing virtually, his bad eyesight would have interfered, and he didn’t want to see his son through a screen.

“It’s just that you stand in front of a camera and then you walk away. The whole process is inhumane.”

When the coronavirus hit Chicago last month, many court operations were put on hold. Non-essential hearings were also rescheduled until at least May 18.

For the hearings still scheduled to take place, instead of being in-person, the hearings are being conducted over the video app Zoom and broadcast on YouTube.

Technical Difficulties Marring Some Criminal Court Processes

Virtual courtrooms are also facing technical difficulties, which is especially true when multiple cases are being heard.

Judges are saying that attorneys don’t always have the same set of paperwork in front of them, and unstable internet connections are causing sound issues.

Another difficulty that courtrooms are facing is when a party lacks access to a smartphone or computer and calls into a regular phone instead.

The courtrooms are working to resolve those issues as they arise.

Pat Milhizer, a spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans says, “Any issue that comes up is going to get addressed. We’ll just keep working on this in these unprecedented times.”

Yet another issue is that some defendants being charged with felonies are being presented to courtrooms via black-and-white video feeds.

These feeds are often poor resolution, which Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school, says is impractical.

“The hearings proceeded as if the defendant was not present. There was no practical opportunity for the defendant and lawyer to consult with each other during the hearing.”