Processing Divorce in Court during COVID… On Zoom?

It’s not news that we are in extraordinary times, with divorce court cases being held over video chat platforms like Zoom. I’ve been wondering how this experience is for clients who, for the time being, don’t have to stand in front of a judge in a hushed courtroom. 

divorce court during COVID happens virtually
Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

How do they hear things differently?

How is the feeling different – better or worse?

And is the judge’s ruling in a divorce case as effective from afar?

The Difference Is Big

It’s one thing to stand in the courtroom in front of a judge wearing a robe with deputies standing nearby. The formal and reserved ambience of the courtroom does not exist in a virtual experience.

Does that mean the messages are not as strong or impactful?

From the safety of home, we are more relaxed. When a judge admonishes a client for improper behavior in a virtual hearing, is it perceived as severely?

Remote Cases Affect All Parties

when divorce court happens over video, people are more relaxed
Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

From a lawyer’s perspective, preparing for an evidentiary hearing and having to do a trial by Zoom is also different. We call witnesses, and they respond from their own homes or offices.

Are they reading information they would not otherwise be able to refer to if in person?

Are they texting a friend or the Jameson Law firm for help?

Body Language Is Impossible to Read in Remote Cases

The judge may hear things differently, too, unable to read the body language or pick up on certain inferences made by those present in a courtroom.

Often in family court, judges will make comments from the bench to address the parties, to send a message. I wonder, is that message as powerful while the party is sitting in an easy chair in his living room, listening without really being present? 

Consider this Case Study

As an example, not long after we were all required to stay-safe-at-home, a party filed a motion to prevent the other parent from traveling out of the country with their children – when travel out of the country was really not possible due to pandemic limitations on travel. We still don’t know when it will be possible to travel beyond our borders.

The judge looked at both parties on the virtual hearing and said, “You have to choose your battles. This is not an emergency. Nobody is going anywhere right now, so come back to me if there really is an urgency.”

virtual court cases focus on the important issues, not the petty ones
Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

The co-parents were arguing about what was essentially an irrelevant point. The judge tried to emphasize this point sternly, but I have to say, I don’t think the point sticks as much with clients when we’re relegated to video hearings. 

Isn’t It Good to Revere the Judge?

In the courtroom, when a judge makes a comment from the bench, and an order is entered into the court docket, it’s a serious thing.  You can feel the gravity of the situation when you’re standing there, in the windowless courtroom, with the judge seated higher than everyone, and no one else utters a word.

You stand, out of respect for the judge, and wait for him or her to respond to your motion. And what the judge says, goes.

Period. 

Let’s Get Serious

I’m convinced that while the order stands and is as effective and imperative during this time as any other time, the parties don’t feel the gravity of the situation in the same way.

There is one upside to this new normal, though. In divorce cases where abuse or violence is present, not having to show up in the same physical space as your abuser is a relief for clients seeking freedom and safety from domestic abuse

one benefit of virtual divorce court is abused spouses don't have to be in the same place
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

In these situations, staying in your own home while the abuser remains in another space is a gift for the victim. However, I’m not sure the abuser receives the severity of the proceedings when the judge is on a screen.

Does the Location of Your Divorce Case Matter?

The takeaway from all of this is that if you were planning to divorce, think about how the inability to appear in a physical courtroom will help or hinder your case.

There are non-court-based options for divorce, of course, like Collaborative Divorce or Mediation – which might be better alternatives. 

If you’re looking for a divorce lawyer at this time, you might want to consider talking with a lawyer who is familiar with and practices both the court-based, litigation model and is specially trained as a mediator or Collaborative attorney – someone like me!

After all, is it worth litigating if you’re not appearing in front of a judge?

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