As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Tennessee and across the country, attorneys and clients are adjusting to a new normal. Court closings and docket backups put many family law issues on hold, including separation and divorce matters. Now, with courts opening again, divorce hearings can continue, with many proceeding via conferencing technology like Zoom.
Virtual hearings allow litigants to proceed with their cases from the comfort of their homes or a neutral location, keeping in line with public health guidelines and finally making progress in their Tennessee divorce or family law matters. Depending on your specific circumstances, a Zoom hearing may meet your needs for an efficient and successful divorce action. However, like anything, virtual hearings do have their advantages and disadvantages.
Pros of virtual hearings
The benefits of Zoom and virtual hearings include:
- Progress. Courts are now moving forward after several months of dealing with emergencies and backups from closings. Now, parties can make progress in their divorces and seek decisions and judgements in child custody or alimony
- Convenience. With virtual hearings, you do not have to travel to the courthouse, deal with parking lots and fees or security. You can attend the hearing from your home, office or anywhere you feel comfortable and safe.
- Credibility. For some judges, technology like Zoom helps them better assess an individual’s or witness’ credibility. Zoom allows a judge face-to-face and eye contact, typically on a large screen in a courtroom. This provides fewer distractions than a courtroom full of people, and more focus on the individual speaking at the moment.
- First-hand visuals. In cases of child custody concerns, a judge can make immediate assessments about a parent’s home, as they can physically view the home via Zoom or other conferencing technology. If necessary, a judge can see a child’s room, family living space and kitchen to determine safety and cleanliness.
- Lowers the risk of COVID-19. As we all know, the original purpose of virtual hearings was to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. By continuing to use this type of technology, the courts – and you – are helping to fight the pandemic.
Cons of virtual hearings
The drawbacks of Zoom hearings include:
- Confidentiality. Many divorce hearings require disclosure of important financial and personal information, especially in disputes over asset division and child custody. This can include bank statements, tax statements, medical records or psychiatric evaluations. When documents are introduced into evidence online, there is always the very remote chance of computer hacking.
- Control of the room. Although a virtual courtroom may be free of distractions, a judge cannot control who might be physically present in a client’s home – whether someone is coaching a witness or a child, or if someone is using their cellphone.
- Credibility. Although this also appears on the “pros” list, some people believe virtual technology does not give a clear picture of an individual’s or witness’ demeanor. Judges may not be able to see a person’s body language, like shaky hands or nervous tics.
- Domestic violence safety. When a divorce involves domestic violence or obtaining an order of protection, it may be unsafe for a spouse to participate in a virtual hearing, especially in their own home. Traditional court provides security measures like bailiffs, and the emotional support of having their own attorney with them in person.
- Integrity of testimony. In traditional hearings and trials, judges typically keep third-party witnesses sequestered outside the courtroom. However, done virtually, this is difficult to enforce. A judge cannot easily tell if a witness or individual is being coached, if a third party is illegally recording testimony, or if someone is using notes.
- Technical problems. Unstable wi-fi, low bandwidth or electronic interference can cause technical issues for some clients, which may cause delays and distractions. When this cannot be remedied quickly, clients may feel they did not receive a fair court proceeding.
In some capacity – no matter how the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect our country – virtual hearings are here to stay. It is important to understand how they can affect you and your divorce case, and the attorneys at Shepherd & Long, P.C. can help explain your options. We work with families across East Tennessee. To schedule your free consultation, please call our Maryville offices at 865-982-8060, or we invite you to complete our contact form.