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Coronavirus and Your Court: Balancing Public Health and Justice

by Trish Lomonosov / March 18, 2020

The judicial system has a unique mission – to administer justice fairly and efficiently. Achieving this mission during an emergency comes with a distinct set of challenges in courthouse planning. The World Health Organization recently declared the Coronavirus a global pandemic. At such a time as this, the need to carry out judicial functions must be delicately balanced with the responsibility to protect the health and safety of judges, court staff, litigants, attorneys, and all other courthouse visitors.

Your court has likely overcome other challenges in the past, such as maintaining operations in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, preparing for a possible H1N1 outbreak, or recovering from a natural disaster. However, with the threat of a widespread Coronavirus outbreak now upon us, you may find yourself navigating uncharted waters. As you plan to maintain operations amid this growing public health concern, here are some tips for how your court can continue to administer justice while also protecting the court personnel and communities you serve.

Reviewing and Updating Your Court’s Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan

Your court has likely developed a COOP plan to ensure that mission-critical operations can continue in the event of an emergency. It is important to review your court’s plan and to make any necessary updates so that your court is prepared for what could lie ahead. Remember that implementing your COOP plan mustn’t be an all or nothing proposition. Courts across the nation are in widely varying stages of implementing their plans. You could consider using a phased approach. This would allow for flexibility as the threat continues to change and evolve. A more robust response could be implemented incrementally as the threat develops. Some important topics to consider as part of your COOP plan include:

  • Telework. COOP plans traditionally include identification of an alternative facility where judicial functions can be carried out if the courthouse becomes inaccessible. However, be sure that your COOP plan also includes provisions for telecommuting. Procedures should be developed in the event that court personnel – even judges – need to telecommute for an extended period of time. You may consider implementing telework for non-essential employees immediately to reduce the number of people in the courthouse, and thus the likelihood of spreading the virus.
  • Communication plan. A communication plan should be established that clearly identifies how information will be disseminated both internally and externally during the crisis. Court personnel will require immediate access to changing information so that they clearly understand how their job functions should be carried out. It will also be critical to establish ways to communicate with litigants, attorneys, jurors, and the public. Stress levels may be high for litigants or attorneys who are scheduled for upcoming proceedings in your courthouse. Jurors will need to know whether to report for service. It will be imperative to keep all parties informed via your website, social media, email, telephone calls, or other communication channels. Provide litigants, attorneys, and jurors with current points of contact and make sure those points of contact are easily accessible.
  • Delegation/succession of authority. It is important to identify individuals who will have decision-making authority within your court if the normal channels of direction are disrupted. It may be a good idea to establish a chain of command that identifies multiple decision-makers in the event that primary decision-makers become unavailable.
  • Records management. Maintaining access to vital court records is imperative. Many courts nationwide have implemented electronic case filing, which allows litigants to file cases electronically. Electronic case filing also allows litigants and court personnel to access court records electronically, which prevents disruption in the flow of information during times of suspended operations. It will be necessary for court personnel to identify any additional records they will need to access and to establish a way to access those records from a remote location in the event of courthouse closure.
  • Technologies. While a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado may damage or destroy IT infrastructure, technologies will still be operational during the Coronavirus outbreak. This is a plus. It is critical to have the technologies in place for certain court operations to continue in the event of a courthouse closure. This includes laptops, videoconferencing equipment, and phones with teleconferencing capabilities. Meetings – and even certain court proceedings – could be held via tele- or videoconference. This also includes establishing access to your court’s computer network from remote locations and ensuring that teleworkers can access electronic case filing, file sharing, and videoconferencing services.
  • Training Exercises. The most effective way to ensure that your court stands ready and prepared to implement its COOP plan is to conduct training exercises. Consider having judges hold certain proceedings via videoconference from their homes or other remote locations immediately to test the technology. Work through any kinks that are encountered in the system. If your court personnel are not telecommuting already, allow them to telework for short periods and instruct them to test their network access, log in to IT systems, download large files, and test communication systems. Have a feedback loop and IT assistance in place so that teleworkers have the support they need to work through any glitches. Ensure that any obstacles to productivity are ironed out now. This will help court operations run as smoothly as possible once the COOP plan takes effect.


Reducing the Spread of Infection

Some courthouses have already begun closing their doors to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. If your court plans to maintain a physical presence in the courthouse, here are some policies you could consider:

  • Delay non-essential proceedings. Your court will likely be required to carry out some judicial proceedings even in the face of this pressing national emergency. It will be important for your court to undergo a thorough evaluation of the proceedings handled in your courthouse to determine which types of trials, hearings, ceremonies, and other activities must be carried out and which types can be delayed. For instance, due process rights will need to be protected. You may need to hold criminal arraignments, criminal trials for in-custody defendants, and sentencings, but perhaps your court could postpone jury trials, family matters, traffic cases, civil proceedings, grand jury proceedings, and naturalization ceremonies.
  • Limit courthouse visitors. In addition to litigants and attorneys, courthouse proceedings typically draw a wide range of visitors, ranging from the press to families of victims and defendants to members of the curious public. Because this is a time when social distancing and dramatically reducing the number of people in a given location are encouraged, you may consider limiting entrance to only those parties involved in the proceeding and their attorney(s). You should also consider curtailing public operations that typically occur in your courthouse, such as public tours, school visits, and special events.
  • Instruct high-risk visitors to stay home. Your court could consider instructing jurors who are in the high-risk category to reschedule their service. You may also consider initiating a public information campaign to alert any potential courthouse visitors that if they fall into the high-risk category, they will not be allowed entrance into the courthouse.
  • Initiate health screenings at jails/prisons. If criminal proceedings are held in your courthouse, you may consider working with staff at your courthouse’s feeder jails and prisons to develop procedures for performing health screenings of in-custody defendants prior to their arrival at the courthouse. Taking this step could be one way to limit the number of symptomatic individuals entering the courthouse.
  • Implement a self-reporting policy. A court district in Ohio recently made an announcement that if courthouse visitors have been diagnosed with the virus, recently traveled to locations where there are widespread outbreaks, or been in close contact with others who have been diagnosed or who have traveled to these locations, such individuals should contact their attorney or court representative before coming to court. The court announced that judges will make reasonable accommodations to postpone proceedings or to hold them via video- or teleconference. This court district also announced that visitors who appear at the courthouse with cold- or flu-like symptoms will be asked to alert court security personnel at the courthouse entrance. You could consider implementing a self-reporting policy for your courthouse, and could communicate that to the public via your website, outreach to the bar, and signage on the outside of the courthouse.
  • Enhance building sanitation. Establishing a more frequent schedule for cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, and sinks, can help limit the spread of the virus. If there is a case of Coronavirus in your courthouse – or worse, an outbreak – it may be wise to consult an industrial hygienist who could develop a protocol for cleaning and testing, as well as a professional virus decontamination company to ensure that a complete decontamination occurs, including surfaces and the HVAC and duct systems.
  • Develop guidelines for limited physical contact. The CDC has reported that person-to-person spread of the virus typically occurs with close physical contact (within about 6 feet). Guidelines should be established to prevent community spread as much as possible, including limiting physical contact between court security personnel and visitors, and creating separation among employees.
  • Implement a “clean desk” policy. A clean desk policy requires all employees to clear their desks at the end of each work day. Implementing this policy at your courthouse would allow for surfaces to be cleaned more easily and thoroughly, which could be one piece of a larger strategy to help reduce the spread of infection.

Fentress has been helping courts plan for the future for more than 30 years. My hope is that the information in this blog will be helpful as you navigate your court through these uncertain times. If you would like more information, please contact us at (888) 387-7655, or at inquiry@fentress.com, for a complementary consultation.

Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). She is also a certified Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) practitioner. Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.