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As part of MSBA’s Legal Excellence Week, panelists from the Diversity and Inclusion Committee discussed the impact of virtual hearings on vulnerable populations in I Can’t Connect: Finding New Ways to Forge Connections. Former Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera moderated the conversation, which featured Chief Judge Designate, Hon. E Gregory Wells; Natasha Dartigue, Deputy District Public Defender; Pilar Nichols, Principal, Offit Kurman; and Amy Petkovsek, Deputy Chief Counsel, Maryland Legal Aid. 

The panelists began by examining the challenges virtual hearings present to communities with different socioeconomic and language backgrounds. For example, Dartigue noted that people in many communities served by public defenders lacked the resources to participate in virtual proceedings. Additionally, they were unfamiliar with the technology they were suddenly asked to adopt. Nichols agreed, pointing out that many lower income people do not have computers or printers, which made it difficult for them to make the adjustment to virtual proceedings. Similarly, people would typically receive documents from their attorney and go over them in person prior to proceedings to ensure they understand them, which they cannot do when courts hold virtual hearings. It can also be difficult to retain and use interpreters in virtual hearings. The panelists agreed that while there are benefits to virtual hearings, they should only be held when they do not deny people access to justice. 

The conversation then turned to the need to raise awareness and cognizance of the issues different demographics face with access to technology. For example, if people do not have internet access, a private place to attend a virtual hearing, or childcare, they may not be able to fully participate in virtual hearings. In many instances, virtual hearings force low income litigants to make difficult choices, like choosing between attending a hearing or leaving their child at home, whether to use a computer for a hearing or their child’s schooling, or using limited cell phone minutes to speak to their attorneys. 

The discussion ended with the panelists contemplating the improvements the legal community can implement to address the challenges of virtual hearings moving forward. Some suggestions were to provide people represented by public defenders with in-person access to attorneys even if a hearing is virtual, and to ask the judge to provide an overview of what will occur prior to beginning a virtual hearing, as they typically would at an in-person proceeding. Additionally, it was suggested that courts and attorneys should show greater tolerance for litigants participating in virtual hearings from less then ideal situations. 

The entire discussion will be available on the MSBA’s website.