How the justice system adapting to the coronavirus pandemic

“It is a real problem to social distance and still administer justice,” one local attorney said.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Federal state and local courts across the country… are all trying to adjust with the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports the five most common efforts by state courts include:

  • Restricting or ending jury trials
  • Restricting entry into courthouses
  • Generally suspending in-person proceedings
  • Granting extensions for court deadlines… including the deadlines to pay fees and fines
  • Encouraging or requiring videoconferences instead of hearings

News4Jax spoke with a local attorney about the impact on clients and the courts and what may change for good.

We’ve spoken to Randy Reep over the years on specific cases… or ways to approach criminal defense.

“Dealing with the clients we’re picking up zoom, we’re doing conference calls the social distance things working out just fine,” Randy Reep said. “But it is a real problem to social distance and still administer justice.”

Courts in Duval County and surrounding counties have closed up for the most part. Stay at home recommendations or orders throughout the country to protect the community at large.

“My job is to protect only one person from only one thing and that is the client against their adversaries civil family or criminal,” Reep said. “And if you think about it in the criminal context. The train still has to keep moving, but...as this gets longer in duration, the ability to justify maybe people being held in custody or other avenues to court not being available is going to be a problem.”

While courts are closed on many levels and some cases postponed indefinitely Reep says virtual hearings aren’t a complete win-win.

“In my candid opinion I believe it’s a barrier to justice however my firm will be one of the first to do,” Reep said. “We have a virtual hearing coming up in Nassau County on a very intricate issue, beyond the scope of this, but it’ll be very interesting because that one is all a matter of law, it isn’t really a question of fact.”

“There is such a difference in face to face interaction with somebody to see the veracity the truthfulness of somebody to really understand the tone and context of an event,” he continued. “Many, many portions of the law will miss out if we’re doing much of legal practice through video.”

Restricting or canceling jury trials has become a big issue.

Reep said there’s no good substitute through video conferencing and it hurts the accused to have lengthy delays.

“Can you imagine if you’re asking me, ‘Hey, go practice Criminal Defense Law on a jury trial, but don’t have the jury in the room while you’re doing and having them watch it on video?' Our skill set would be so diminished and we’re not prepared for that,” he added. "Frankly I think the justice system would lose out if we do that.”

Attorneys are concerned that a defendant’s right to a speedy trial is not being protected. A defendant in a felony has 175, and 90 days for a misdemeanor.

Also, News4Jax has reported on a rise in family law cases like divorce during the pandemic.

Reep says while those filings may not be viewed as important as criminal cases, but those involved in a family dispute wouldn’t feel the same.

About the Author: