Since January 31st, 2020, most people will agree that the coronavirus – also known as COVID-19 – has done quite the job in turning the world on its head. From empty store shelves to employment termination, from compulsory face masks to thermometer guns, the effects of the pandemic can be seen everywhere. Not even the Utah judicial system has gone unscathed: court dates have been canceled, mandatory appearances have been waived and yes, believe it or not, defendants have even been released from jail early, all because of that pesky virus. But now that the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight (or so we all hope), one might be forgiven for wondering: will life ever get back to normal?
COVID COURT MEASURES
To answer that question it is important to understand exactly how things have really changed since the emergence of the pandemic, particularly with regards to the courts. Since the declaration of the emergency, the Utah Supreme Court has been issuing regular orders outlining the measures to be taken in order to help curb the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. These measures can be broken down into three categories: 1) measures applicable to the courts; 2) measures applicable to attorneys; and 3) measures applicable to litigants.
For the Courts
Above all else, the priority for the courts has so far been to maintain the rule of law during the pandemic. To this end, the courts have been ordered to remain open, to accept filings, to answer calls and emails and even to continue to hold hearings. That being said, there are a few provisos to these orders: the courts have been ordered to restrict the entry of people showing symptoms of COVID-19 into the courthouses (obviously), to “grant liberally motions for extensions of time,” and to accept filings “without a wet signature,” – that is, a handwritten, physically made signature – on filings with the court. Meanwhile, jury trials have been suspended, hearings have been conducted remotely wherever possible (i.e. over the phone or video), and judges have been ordered to “reconsider the defendant’s custody status…and release the defendant subject to appropriate conditions.” Even the court’s authority to issue warrants in cases has been tempered: “a court may not issue a warrant for a person’s failure to appear or comply in a class B or C misdemeanor or infraction case…”
For attorneys, meanwhile, the Utah Supreme Court issued instructions that complement those given to the courts. These include taking such measures as coordinating efforts with the “presiding judges, trial court executives, clerks of court, and chief probation officers,” as well as “developing work schedules, permitting or requiring telework, and cancelling in-person meetings and conferences, or conducting them remotely when possible.” Further, attorneys have been “encouraged to stipulate [agree] to extensions of time,” though this direction does not apply to filing deadlines and the like, which are expected to remain unchanged. Finally, attorneys are expected to participate in all hearings through paperwork “or through remote transmission, such as by telephone or video conferencing.”
Last on the list, unrepresented litigants (plaintiffs and defendants) have been issued a particular set of directions, particularly relating to court appearances and filing procedures. For instance, if a person “appears at the courthouse in response to a summons or pursuant to a promise to appear…[they shall be given a new date to appear or provided with instructions on how their case may be handled through remote transmission.” As far as filings with the court are concerned, unrepresented parties “may file, without a wet signature, protective order requests, stalking injunction requests, pleadings, and other documents.” In short, for the first time in the State of Utah, unrepresented individuals can file their documents with the court via email.
WHAT TO EXPECT
With all the measures the Utah Supreme Court has ordered in response to COVID-19 – from allowing telephonic/video appearances to prohibiting warrants issuing on lesser cases – the future of the legal system might seem a little uncertain. For those who work in the industry, however, there are already a few signs of what is likely to come next: delayed cases, measures to address them and the possible resurgence of the virus.
Above all, it is already clear to the courts, lawyers, and litigants alike that there is going to be a major case-load crunch. With all the delays caused as a result of the steps taken to curb the threat of the pandemic, thousands if not tens of thousands of hearings and proceedings have been set out – sometimes by months – throughout the entire state. All of these rescheduled hearings will inevitably clash with hearings on new cases, which will likely end up being delayed as a result themselves. This massive pile-up of cases is bound to slow down the courts in Utah for months, if not years to come.
Of course, just as apparent as the looming delays are, so too are the measures that the courts can be expected to implement to cope with the delays. Already the Utah Supreme Court has issued orders that courts across the state are to be more lenient when it comes to enforcing filing rules and taking people into custody. Even the use of warrants on cases with lesser offenses are beginning to be discouraged, presumably in an effort to reduce the burden on the jail and prison populations (reportedly among the hardest hit populations when it comes to COVID). Should these measures prove insufficient to cope with the expected delays, more significant steps are likely to be taken.
Finally, the threat hanging over the whole world of a strong resurgence of the COVID-19 virus – now that safety restrictions are at last beginning to let up – represents an ominous if uncertain future for the Utah legal system. Should the pendulum swing back in COVID’s favor, more directives, accommodations, and delays are bound to result.
Although COVID-19 has caused some significant changes in the way the Utah judicial system exercises justice throughout the state – many of which have never been seen before – the question of whether the Utah courts will ever revert back to the pre-pandemic policies is an academic one. The fact remains that the courts have now implemented such significant and sweeping changes that returning to pre-pandemic policies may not be possible, or even desirable. Whatever the future holds for the Utah courts, however, one thing is certain: in one form or another, the administration of justice in Utah will go on.