Paul D’Amato started transitioning from working in his Egg Harbor Township-based personal injury law firm over two weeks ago, making sure that technology would work as he continued to handle cases and communicate with clients remotely.
“The vast majority of the clients, this is their first time involved in litigation, and we have to tell them there’s going to be a delay in the resolution of their case,” D’Amato said Friday. “You can hear it in their voices — there’s some anxiety, besides the anxiety of dealing with COVID-19, of how and when their case is going to be resolved.”
D’Amato, along with other South Jersey lawyers, have had to make adjustments to how they do their jobs — defending clients across criminal, civil and municipal courts — since the spread of COVID-19.
In order to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus, state judiciary officials have placed restrictions on in-person hearings and suspended jury trials. And, while video and audio conferencing technology is being used for detention hearings and other time-sensitive matters, some lawyers worry about technical glitches, the importance of privacy and cite the need to be physically in a courtroom to do their job effectively.
In the days since state officials called for residents to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandem…
Last week, Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts for the state, issued an order barring in-person Superior Court proceedings except for extremely limited emergent matters and certain ongoing trials.
The order outlines that as many matters as possible, including case management conferences, motions and hearings, would be handled by telephone or video conferences.
The order followed guidance from Chief Justice Stuart Rabner suspending all new jury trials until further notice to mitigate community exposure to the new coronavirus.
“Effective immediately, the Judiciary is suspending jury service for new trials,” Rabner said in a March 12 news release. “While jury trials are a critical component of our justice system, this extraordinary step is necessary to protect the health and safety of the community. At the same time, we will make every effort to keep our court system running in the face of this health crisis.”
Atlantic County Deputy Public Defender Scott D. Sherwood said the office is focusing on detention hearings, motions to reopen those hearings, as well as pleas and sentencings where the recommended sentence results in a release from jail, which are all being conducted virtually.
Recovery Court attorneys are also working to get clients sentenced so they can be moved from the jail and into treatment, he said.
A number of inmates are set to be released this week from South Jersey jails after an order …
“We are concerned that the discontinuation of jury trials and grand juries will impact our clients’ right to a speedy trial,” Sherwood said. “However, the reality is that those proceedings cannot safely occur at this time.”
Attorneys in the office are using the time they have now “to prepare cases for trial so we will be ready to go once things return to normal,” he said.
Atlantic City-based attorney Ed Weinstock said Friday he’s working on filing motions, writing briefs and using video conferencing for some hearings, but his priority has been getting in touch with clients via phone or email so that they stay informed about what’s going on with their case.
“Especially in criminal matters, court is the driving force — that’s what moves cases along, and they’ve been put to a screeching halt,” he said. “I’m good at being on my feet, trying cases, but somebody’s going to have to figure out a solution if this is going to last as long they say it’s going to last.”
He’s worried about attorney-client privilege if a glitch should occur during virtual court sessions, especially in more complicated matters that require him to have discussions with a client, then a separate conversation with a prosecutor and then speak to his client again, he said.
“Just trying to coordinate all that stuff ... at this point, I don’t know what the solution is,” Weinstock said.
Similarly, attorney Steven Scheffler, who has a practice in Northfield, said he’s been working remotely, but he hopes restrictions will stay in place until officials see how the area is affected by the outbreak.
Certain matters can be taken care of virtually, he said, but, for others it would be incredibly difficult to give litigants a fair hearing, he said.
“I like the ability to look somebody in the eye and watch their body language. To me, it’s a much more difficult process doing it remotely,” Scheffler said. “There’s no replacing do it in person.”
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