Jury trials have a long history, and for hundreds of years, the physical setup of courtrooms has remained largely unchanged. Attorneys could — and would — go up to the jury box and be able to look the jurors in the eye. For witnesses on the stand, they could also look the juries in the eyes, and juries could use nonverbal communication to help determine the trustworthiness or credibility of each witness.
But in the age of Covid, the landscape of the courtroom has been radically altered. Social distancing means that juries are often no longer positioned in the jury box — instead, they are often spread out across the courtroom, further removed from the witness stand, from their fellow jurors and from the attorneys. All participants — the jurors, witnesses, and attorneys — must wear face masks to protect others from the spread of the virus, and plexiglass shields are common. These changes have affected the dynamics of the courtroom substantially.
As attorneys, these changes can have a significant impact on your body language, your oratory style and everything else about how you’ve approached jury trials in the past. Many legal experts worry about the potential impact of these changes on the outcomes of trials.
This unprecedented shift in the physical layout of courtrooms and the ability to interact with juries and witnesses poses unique challenges for trial lawyers. Here are three ways we can better adapt jury trials in the age of the Coronavirus.
Prioritize Courtroom Communication
In the traditional courtroom setup, communication is prioritized. Juries are seated near witnesses in large part because they are tasked with assessing the credibility of each witness, and nonverbal communication and cues can play a significant role in determining that.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the necessity of wearing face coverings for participants in a trial, including witnesses. But with face masks covering much of a person’s face, facial expressions are obscured, reducing a jury’s ability to adequately read a person’s facial expressions or understand their demeanor. Face masks, then, while a necessary safety precaution, can interfere with the juries’ ability to assess the witness.
While health and safety are of course paramount, maintaining the integrity of the courtroom is also essential. Allowing appropriate nonverbal communication between the jury and witnesses helps ensure that juries tasked with determining the outcome of a case can do their job effectively.
Luckily, there are alternative options that would maintain safety while allowing greater nonverbal communication. Using clear face shields or face guards for witnesses and other parties, for example, would help courts maintain the nonverbal communication participants need while ensuring the safety of all involved.
Reconfigure the Courtroom
The physical setup of the courtroom has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. But in the face of a global pandemic on an unprecedented scale, it may be time to rethink the configuration of our courtrooms to better protect participants without sacrificing the efficacy of trials. Attorneys can work with judges and court officials to ensure that the set up of the courtroom is conducive to trial needs.
In a large courtroom space, for example, a panoramic setup where all parties are physically distant, but podiums are positioned in a semi-circle, would allow attorneys to maintain social distance while still being able to engage with all of the members of the jury. The current model of spreading out juries throughout the courtroom often hampers an attorney’s ability to successfully engage with the jury by often requiring that they turn their back to at least a portion of the jury at all times.
Reimagining the physical layout of the courtroom would help prevent the positioning of the jurors from interfering with attorneys’ ability to effectively try their cases.
Retain Human Connections
The pandemic seems unlikely to end anytime soon. And in the meantime, trials must go forward. But for those seeking justice during this difficult time, the judicial system must ensure that they have access to a courtroom layout that helps ensure their best chance of justice being served.
Trials rely on human connections. The attorneys connect with the jury through their oratory and through nonverbal communication to make their case. Juries connect with witnesses through eye contact and nonverbal cues to help determine credibility. These are critical aspects of a trial, and they cannot be abandoned.
Although it is important that courtrooms remain a safe physical space for all participants and that social distance and personal protective equipment is used, judges, attorneys, and court officials need to think critically about how to best use the physical space and protective equipment to minimize the disruption to the human connections at the core of jury trials. Finding creative solutions to issues of safety in the courtroom and retaining a focus on human connection will allow jury trials to continue as they always have unimpeded — by serving the interest of justice.