COVID-19’s unexpected impact on the justice system
You may be familiar with the phrase “Justice delayed is justice denied”. It’s a simple yet thoughtful concept that essentially means that if legal relief isn’t available in a timely fashion, it is the same as having no remedy at all.
The phrase has been on my mind—and the minds of lawyers and judges across our region—more than ever the last year and a half due to the pandemic. When it became clear that COVID-19 was going to be serious and highly contagious, Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivens of the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the Judicial Branch of the Tennessee government and signed an order immediately suspending all in-person proceedings in court. The federal courts in Tennessee issued their own similar orders. That meant no trials. The courts cleared their dockets and nothing else was scheduled.
Though that first order expired, subsequent orders continued the suspension of in-person court appearances beyond that date. Hearings and trials ground to a halt. In the meantime, life went on (albeit in a much different manner) outside of the courts. People were still hurt in car wrecks, contract disputes continued to occur, custody disputes and divorces were still being filed. In other words, we still needed the civil justice system to help resolve our disputes, but in many cases there was no movement in that direction.
I have clients who have been seriously injured, who have been in medical treatment for months, whose cases were filed multiple years ago. It’s no secret that their cases should have been resolved by now. But they aren’t. And that is simply because we don’t have that driving factor of a trial date to propel their case forward.
Some insurance companies are doing the right thing. They’re engaging with us, negotiating with us, agreeing to mediations. We’re even doing depositions—though not many—as if a trial date was set. But many companies are not taking that approach and are offering clients half of what they would normally or in some cases, nothing at all. I’ve had clients whose cases have gone on for so long that they take whatever the offer is, simply so they can move on and put this part of their lives behind them.
But where is the justice in that? I have heard of trials by Zoom or attempts at finding alternate locations to the courthouse that can withstand the social distancing guidelines. And while I applaud the effort, it’s just not enough and it doesn’t negate the backlog of cases stacking up, waiting for their trials to be scheduled again or the people waiting for their piece of justice. It will take years to rid us of this buildup in the civil justice system.
Like everyone else, I pray that this pandemic is close to an end. And my hope is that once we get our court dates set, that we will be able to provide closure for our clients who have waited patiently for justice and resolution of their case and the losses they have suffered.