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The pandemic has brought changes to the legal system

Viewpoint

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the practice of law in many ways. If you’re navigating the legal system this year, here are some things you should know.

Perhaps the biggest development has been the shift to attending most types of hearings remotely.

While judges and judicial staff are still in court, others can participate off-site using the apps Webex Meet or Zoom, with the meeting codes posted online at www.courts.state.hi.us/remote-court-hearings-via-zoom-or-webex.

While some glitches are inevitable, and not all hearings can be held this way, this method is too convenient and intuitive to not stay long term, especially given how much it reduces the number of no-shows, defaults and bench warrants. Note that remote hearings are still formal proceedings, so participants should select a quiet setting, wear proper attire and use headsets if possible.

The Judiciary has also tried to remotely increase access to the courts. In the past, a trip to the courthouse was needed to file documents. Now, thanks to the new “Document Drop-Off” online service, a self-represented litigant would be able to register for an account with the Hawaii Judiciary Electronic Filing and Service System, and submit a PDF file for review and filing without the need for face-to-face interaction with court clerks. Far more convenient, elegant and eco-friendly than paper filing, electronic filing will hopefully continue to be available to all.

For more information, visit www.courts.state.hi.us/document-drop-off-an-online-service.

If you’re coming in person to the courthouse, you must submit to temperature testing and answer a set of questions about potential COVID-19 exposure. Masks and social distancing are required at all times. The Judiciary has done an excellent job reconfiguring facilities to reduce potential exposure and to increase emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation.

The bar had been doing a great job expanding the Self-Help Center in recent years, until the pandemic hit and the center’s physical location was shuttered. However, the public still has resources for free legal assistance. Our helpful attorney volunteers are still standing by via phone from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Monday and Thursday. The self-represented litigant would call (808) 707-7153 for routing by our diligent Legal Aid/AmeriCorps liaison to a volunteer on duty. Another option for the public is submitting questions in writing via hawaii.freelegalanswers.org/.

In the months going forward, the Judiciary will continue to have its hands full. There is a daunting backlog of jury trials, and because some witnesses cannot attend in person, there’s a delicate balancing act between expediency, adequacy of evidence and testimony and ensuring reliability and constitutional safeguards. A backlog of unresolved eviction cases for nonpayment of rent also looms, though President Joe Biden recently extended the nationwide ban on evictions through March. The Judiciary, already underfunded for years, is one of many victims of the recent shortfall of state revenue, leading to painful reductions of personnel and programs.

The legal profession will continue to evolve because of the pandemic. With every bit of legal practice becoming increasingly remote and contactless — like hearings, client meetings, intake, payment, etc. — there’s less need for a brick-and-mortar law office. Given financial struggles in the community, many attorneys have expanded their horizons also to provide limited scope services — like helping draft specific court filings or making “special appearances” for specific hearings — instead of requiring a sizable retainer upfront. Court may even be avoided altogether thanks to mediation and other alternative dispute resolution.

* Damir Kouliev is a criminal and family law attorney and mediator who has been serving as the Maui County Bar Association President.

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