America attempts its first Zoom jury trial

An insurance dispute in Texas might not sound like the setting for the most memorable courtroom drama, but the hearing will go down in history. 

Monday’s case, a lawsuit accusing an insurer for failing to cover property damage caused by a 2017 storm, was set to go to trial in March but became the first of its kind to be streamed on Zoom.

Judges and court officials in Texas, like many others around the world, are brainstorming how to conduct business as normal. 

Ideas have included spreading jurors out in a courtroom and requiring them, and lawyers to wear masks. But it is difficult to social distance with hundreds typically visiting a courthouse at any one time. 

During the proceedings, which were streamed on YouTube for the public to watch, there were few technical glitches, other than the occasional confusion over how to switch to Zoom’s gallery view, lock the camera rotation of a juror’s phone (so they did not appear as if they were floating in the air) and one lengthy bathroom break that kept participants twiddling their thumbs. 

One obstacle that did become apparent throughout the proceedings was the possibility that participants might be removed based on their technical prowess, an intriguing possibility for those looking to wriggle out of jury duty should courts eventually become more digital and allow for remote, virtual hearings. 

In the same way that jurors in suffering a health issue during proceedings in physical courts can be absolved of their duties, those struggling with their phones or computers or suffering a technical glitch could be let off. 

“If there is anybody that says ‘I just don’t feel comfortable with a computer system and doing this way’, just let us know up front,” Dallas Judge Keith Dean, overseeing the Zoom selection process, said on the call.

Judge Dean also warned that jurors must tell family members to leave the room when he said and that no use of social media or browsing Google to find information that related to the case was permitted. 

“There are times where the courtroom is open and anyone can come in and there are also times where it is limited to just the jury so you are going to have to tell whoever is in your home there are times when they have to leave the room and not be listening in. 

“Somebody is going to get mad at you until it’s not your fault it is the judge’s fault and they can get mad at me and they can get in the short line of people who are mad at me.”

Keith Dean, a retired judge in Texas, provides instructions to potential jurors during a summary jury trial – Reuters

As jurors will have to spend much of the time on the call discussing private matters – meaning that they cannot have another family member in the room – it might become impossible to have someone to hand to solve internet issues for those who are not familiar with Zoom or any other web streaming app a court might be using. 

Judge Emily Miskel, who is not presiding over the case but was on the call to assist those logging in from laptops, phones and tablets, also asked if jurors were able to continue with their current home set-up. 

Ahead of the call many of the participants had rung the court, Judge Emily Miskel said, out of fear they were victims of a hoax. 

“This is the first time happening in Texas and maybe even the country as far as we know so I appreciate many of you calling ahead to make sure it wasn’t a scam,” she said. “That was very smart of you.”

Judge Miskel told Reuters she believed the case would be instrumental in proving whether a “hybrid approach” where jury selection happens virtually and the remainder is done in person, could be possible.

But for now, the UK seems adamant to press on in person. 

Postponed in March, all new jury trials commenced on Monday, approved by Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett. One of the first trials in Wales since lockdown took place in Cardiff Crown Court.

There,  jurors were dotted around the court instead of sitting in the jury box, under the advice of Public Health Wales.

Oaths were sworn over bibles wrapped in plastic and each juror was given their own documents and can ask for gloves if they wish.

Press and public were invited to watch from another courtroom, and the jurors were asked to speak up if they feared the social distancing measures.

Technology Intelligence newsletter – UK

Instead, two courtrooms will be used, linking with a closed circuit TV to allow reporters and the general public to watch and another for jury deliberations.

Courts staff will ensure that entrances and exits are carefully supervised, and that all necessary cleaning takes place.

Lord Burnett said: “It is important that the administration of justice continues to function whenever it is possible in an environment which is consistent with the safety of all those involved.”

If it did decide to take a leaf out of Texas’ book and adopt the “hybrid approach”, Lord Burnett may avoid potential infection, but would have the weigh up whether  judges and lawyers should only consider the technology savvy, raising questions over fair representation.

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