When the coronavirus began to spread in Delaware, one of the very first things to be limited was the court system.
Chief Justice Collins Seitz Jr. of the Delaware Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency, closing the courthouses and their administrative offices to the public.
One Justice of the Peace Court in each county will be open during the duration of the emergency, while ongoing cases were continued until after April 15.
But while the courts are at a standstill as far as public access, that doesn’t mean work has stopped for lawyers and their clients.
The change has been jarring. Head of the Sussex County Public Defender’s Office Rob Robinson said, “We went from business as usual to almost exclusively using videos and phones by the end of the week.”
The Public Defender’s Office has been working on three different fronts, Robinson said. For non-incarcerated defendants, cases have been continued, so the office has been able to continue working on those cases over the phone.
For incarcerated defendants, the office and the courts boosted the use of videophones, Robinson said, and staff has been able to work remotely. One of the more vulnerable populations to coronavirus is the prison population, as inmates are often in close quarters.
“Very early on, we started filing motions to try to get as many of our clients out of the prisons, especially those who are older or who have health problems,” Robinson said.
“We have two forensic nurses who provided a lot of important information about medical conditions that make people especially vulnerable, so we used that as a guide for reviewing each case. Some motions have been denied, but many have been granted.”
Robinson said all participants in the process - the courts and their staff, Delaware Department of Justice, probation and parole and the public defenders themselves - have been very flexible and creative to work through big changes in a short amount of time.
“Our goal is always to advocate for our clients, and we do that well,” Robinson said. “This virus just adds another layer of challenges for us.”
Rony Baltazar-Lopez, spokesman for Delaware Department of Justice, said, “The DOJ is doing everything in our power to continue preparing for future trials and carrying out some functions remotely - including e-filings and certain hearings - while taking necessary precautions to protect public health and keeping victims, witnesses, and law enforcement apprised of developments in scheduling.”
Denise Nordheimer, an estate planning and family law attorney with offices in Milton and Wilmington, said technology has replaced in-person conferences, with the only face-to-face meetings for signings.
“The big change now is that we will be meeting clients virtually for the first time and maybe only in person for ‘curbside’ signatures. Many of us were early adopters of practice management technology and have been working remotely or from a second office some of the time regularly,” she said.
Nordheimer refers to the signings as curbside because they are often literally just that - “Yours or ours,” she said. The use of technology to conduct business has not been that huge of an adjustment.
“Our clients are used to using technology, either in their professional lives, like Skype or Zoom, or in their personal lives, like FaceTime. We are glad to meet them on whatever platform they are most comfortable in,” Nordheimer said.
Civil litigation attorney Chase Brockstedt said the new way of doing business, with its emphasis on teleconferencing and video calls, may become permanent even after the coronavirus crisis abates.
He said in the past, when he wanted to hire or interview an expert witness who may testify at a trial, it was his practice to talk to that person in-person, to get a feel for how they might project to a jury or in a deposition.
That sort of practice can be costly, Brockstedt said, in terms of time and travel expenses.
But as he has become more experienced in videoconferencing, he said he has found he can get a good sense of how someone might present without being in the same room.
Moving forward, Brockstedt said he plans to continue the practice, to save himself time and money.
Brockstedt’s law partner, Kevin Baird of the firm Baird Mandalas Brockstedt, said part of the firm’s job has become trying to comfort not just clients, but the staff as well.
“We’ve done a lot of reassuring,” he said.
Baird said the firm has tried to keep the staff safe through methods like alternating shifts to not have too many people in the office at one time, making sure they are alert to possible symptoms, and working from home.
“We’ve always been very interactive in person, but now we have to change to a more virtual interaction,” Baird said.
“There’s been a trend toward more telecommuting and virtual communications. This has really sped that up. After things kind of go back to normal, we will be taking advantage of these tools.”