by Amy McLaren
Pursuant to South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Beatty’s Order in September 2020, South Carolina courts began normal operations again as of September 21, 2020. The reality is that very little is “normal” in regards to in-person hearings and jury trials so far. Whether or not a hearing is required and/or whether that hearing may be held by telephone or videoconference continues to be left largely to the specific judge assigned to the roster. Jury trials have slowly begun this month, with various social distancing and mask requirements at each courthouse.
As we continue to navigate how the pandemic has changed the practice of litigation, the American College of Trial Lawyers established the Task Force on Advocacy in the 21st Century to provide national recommendations and guidelines to litigation attorneys throughout this pandemic and post-pandemic period. Throughout the past few months, the College has maintained strong recommendations that trials, civil or criminal, must be held in person and accessible to the public. Primarily the College recommends continuing to hold jury trials, but every trial should be configured for safe distances and compliance with health recommendations. As much as it is feasible, South Carolina is attempting to follow those guidelines, but there are courtrooms, such as in Charleston County that simply cannot provide the proper distancing with jurors, attorneys, parties, and witnesses.
While the College insists on in-person jury trials, the recommendations highlight the use of technology in pushing cases forward in trial preparation as well as case resolution. Over 11,000 hearings have been held over video and/or telephone in SC. In addition, video communications have led to the successful resolution of numerous cases through our mandatory, pre-trial mediation process. As we continue to navigate in-person jury trials, mediations by videoconference are likely to continue for months and in some cases, years, to come.
Although the past eight months have truly been novel and unprecedented for the court system, the use of technology has been extremely effective in moving cases forward and/or resolving matters. While litigation has taken a new turn in light of the pandemic, the American College of Trial Lawyers along with many other organizations, including the American Bar Association and South Carolina Bar, are providing guidance and structure to attorneys as we continue to troubleshoot both technological issues and safety concerns while effectively moving cases towards a resolution.