Coronavirus Special Coverage

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COVID-19 has shut down the American legal system

The COVID-19 pandemic has ground America’s already overloaded legal system to a halt, and cases are piling up while judges stay home. Lawyers we spoke with say the resulting backlogs will likely take years to work their way through the courts after the pandemic ends. What this means for you: possible longer jail stays if you’re arrested, slower immigration proceedings, lower insurance payouts, and long delays on matters of family law.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Delays are caused by backups in the courts. They have limited capacity, and the delays will go on for a long time even when the courts fully reopen.
  • The pandemic has impacted the legal system from top to bottom — every type of law has been slowed down, but delays might vary based on location and legal need.
  • Lawyers are working with new technologies to meet with clients, and some cases have been resolved outside of courts.

Everyone is frustrated by the delays, and the resolution feels a little uncertain.

“People ask me, ‘How long is this going to take?’,” said Joshua Goldstein, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. “I always say, ‘I’ve never practiced law during a pandemic before. I don’t know.’”

Why the delays?

When the United States shut down in March 2020, the legal system did, too. The courts are essential services, but it’s also possible to catch COVID-19 in a courtroom. So right now, the courts are prioritizing criminal cases. But the criminal side of things is also backlogged, and moving more slowly due to the pandemic.

“Just like any other industry, the legal industry wants to operate safely, and yet efficiently, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Stewart Guss from Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Lawyers in Houston, TX. “Just like anyone else, lawyers, as well as judges, clerks, and court staff all want to stay safe. For this reason, many courtrooms across the country have been closed, or extremely restricted, since the pandemic blew up in late March of this year.”

The criminal law delays have a ripple effect on civil cases and family cases. One lawyer told me that someone who filed for divorce in March could probably expect to wait until at least August or September before their case starts moving.

Guss works in Houston, and experienced delays after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. He’s been thinking about Harvey’s impact for some perspective. “Most of the courts were closed for four to six weeks, which resulted in a backlog that lasted almost two years,” Guss said. “That disruption occurred because of a 4-6 week pause, so what’s that going to mean for a 4-6 month pause? I can speculate, but since we’re not out of the woods yet, it could get even worse.”

“I understand the concerns of holding trials in a courtroom, as we’re intimately near others for long periods of time, which you don’t want to be doing during a pandemic,” said Tony Kalka, a personal injury lawyer with Kalka Law Group in Atlanta, GA. “However, something that I’ve seen no coverage on in the news is what’s happening to those victims this whole time who are injured and looking for relief and treatment?”

Kalka said he hasn’t been in a courtroom since March. He just received notice that none of his clients won’t get trials until September, at least. That’s six months without a trial for folks who’ve been injured.

“I represent a lot of victims of personal injuries, such as commercial trucking accidents, premise liability injuries, and malpractice cases where we try to hold insurance companies accountable and it’s just unprecedented what I’m seeing.”

Who’s going to feel the effects?

Everyone. Top to bottom.

That’s because it’s not just some lawyers feeling delays in some counties. Everyone in the United States has been impacted by the pandemic. Stewart Guss, the injury lawyer in Houston, said it’s helpful to imagine legal cases like snow being pushed by a plow. When the pandemic shut the legal system down, the plow pushed all of those cases to later dates on the calendar.

“You can push all of those dates ahead, but that effect is additive,” said Guss. “So when you get back to being ready to operate under normal circumstances again, you have to do what’s normally on your docket, and then also those six weeks of delayed cases. And there’s only so much capacity in a courtroom.

“Now that’s the bad news for your readers. The good news for your readers is that trying circumstances end up with innovative solutions. Court systems are just as interested as everyone else in getting back to work normally.”

For right now, though, the delays are huge and expected to get worse. In some cases, the delays even have health and safety implications. Let’s take a look at what lawyers said to look out for in the affected areas of law.

Criminal law

The courts might be prioritizing criminal cases, but the snow plow effect Guss described means even criminal cases are seeing delays.

“If you happen to find yourself being accused of a crime during COVID-19, I want to warn you that your experience might be noticeably worse,” said Brian Joslyn, a criminal lawyer with Joslyn Law Firm in Cincinnati, OH.

“Since COVID backlogged so much of our nation’s legal system, the normal amount of criminal cases that would see a judge each week is not occurring. This means that individuals are waiting in jail for longer than they expect and it’s opening up pandora’s box for rights violations.”

Since we know that the coronavirus spreads quickly in crowded environments like jails and prisons, this is not good news. In the United States, you’re meant to be innocent until proven guilty, but you could still be exposed to COVID-19 if you’ve just been accused of a crime.

“All this being said, there is a silver lining,” said Joslyn. “Many prosecutors are offering more favorable plea deals to unclog the system and thin the number of cases, as back-and-forth with the defense attorney and client can further delay these clogs.”

Injury law

The roads might be quieter during COVID-19, but car crash fatalities have been increasing. So what should you do if you or someone you love is injured during a car crash during the pandemic?

“Since there are no jury trials or in-court hearings at the moment, the insurance companies know they’re at an advantage as they’re more insulated now than ever,” said Tony Kalka, the injury lawyer in Georgia.

“What this means for a person injured during this time is that they’ll likely receive a low-ball offer from the responsible party’s insurance legal team. They’ll say the medical analysis of the injured shows this or that, but they won’t acknowledge how the injured party likely wasn’t able to receive proper assessments.”

Kalka says he’s advised his clients that their claims could take much longer to make their way through the legal system. So a case that would usually take a year to resolve might take two years.

Drivers should also be aware that insurance companies are experiencing less ‘stress’ on their claims systems because fewer people are on the road. “Some insurance companies are taking advantage of the surplus of both cash as well as personnel time to try to resolve outstanding claims, some of which are several years old,” said Stewart Guss.

“So, depending on where you are in the country, and who the insurance company is on the other side of your personal injury claim, you may find it easier to resolve an injury claim, rather than more difficult,” Guss said. “It’s just a crapshoot and, unfortunately, that’s not what you want in such a large system as ours.”

Family law

“I particularly worry for those in domestic violence or abusive households, whether an adult spouse or their children,” said Brian Joslyn, who also practices family law with Joslyn Law Firm in Columbus, OH.

The stakes are high for those experiencing domestic abuse or violence in their home, and delays will only make things worse. In normal circumstances, Joslyn says people who are planning to leave their spouse can prepare and talk to a lawyer in private. That’s no longer possible for many people.

“Finding new permanent housing or temporary shelter, updating accounts or resources — heck, even establishing your own cell phone away from a family plan — can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible when you’re required to shelter-in-place or remain in close proximity to the abuser,” said Joslyn.

“Additionally, how do you meet with a family law attorney to seek their representation when most firms are doing consults only on Zoom or similar platforms due to social distancing? It’s not like you can do that easily from your family office when the abuser is in the other room.”

Joslyn says those who are experiencing relationship violence or considering divorce should act now.

“It’s only going to get worse, at least in the short-term, and for some people, they don’t have the luxury of patiently waiting for these backlogs to clear up.”

Immigration law

For immigration law, things are even more complicated. That’s because movement has largely been restricted during the pandemic. Laws have also changed since the pandemic started. To add to that, we’re in an election year.

“The road ahead could get bumpy,” said Joshua Goldstein, an immigration lawyer with Goldstein Immigration Lawyers in Los Angeles. “Estimated processing times are out the window as USCIS and the State Department have furloughed staff, closed offices, and restricted operations, so they’re operating with significant restrictions at the moment.”

But people still need to come to the United States or resolve their immigration status. Goldstein said demands for his services remain high. “People are anxious and worried and they want to know how to help their mother and children,” he said. “So, yeah, I mean it hasn’t hurt the demand for our business.”

Like all the other lawyers I spoke to, Goldstein said the time to act on any immigration needs is now. “What I’ve been telling all clients and prospective clients is that the sooner they throw their hat into the ring and get their spot in line the better their overall experience will be. Now, will it be what it was in 2019 or otherwise? No, it’ll be more challenging and a longer timeframe, but that’s still better than hesitating any longer to only delay your goals that much further.”

Woman with mask on looking at computer screen

What’s next? Better technology, hopefully

The legal system isn’t going away, no matter how long COVID lasts. But the way you can expect to interact with a lawyer will be different. The lawyers I spoke with all said they’re meeting with clients via Zoom right now.

Sometimes Zoom works for practicing law, and other times it introduces other complications.

“During the first all-video jury trial in Texas recently, proceedings were upended when it was noticed that a juror went into another room to take a call – during the middle of crucial testimony,” said Stewart Guss. “You would never have a cell phone or the opportunity to duck out in a normal trial setting, so unorthodox behaviors are compounding the chaos of the already harmed system. I believe that should paint a picture of how far we need to go in refining the legal system to accommodate COVID-19.”

Some of the changes have surprised lawyers, however. They’re realizing they can do things differently than they did before. The lawyers I spoke to said they didn’t expect to go back to the office anytime soon, and that’s not such a bad thing. Clients might not have to shell out for parking or have the hassle of driving to another city to meet with their lawyer in the future. And that might reduce some of the anxiety associated with the legal system.

“Think about how much better you feel as a client being able to talk to a lawyer, talk to a judge while sitting in your living room and petting your cat,” said Guss. “The feedback we’ve gotten is that it takes a lot of the stress out of legal dealings.”

Another advantage to the New Normal: lawyers are seeing a higher percentage of disputes worked out without needing a court appearance at all. That varies based on the type of legal problem and the area, but out-of-court resolutions tend to work better for everyone.

If you find yourself needing legal mediation during the pandemic, you can expect slowdowns, but also understanding from lawyers.

“Despite rumors to the contrary, lawyers are humans too,” said Guss. “And we are truly as stressed out as you are trying to take care of our clients in trying circumstances. Everyone in the system wants the system to move smoothly.”