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The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but particularly survivors of domestic violence. Domestic violence rates have skyrocketed under the weight of COVID-19. But if there’s a silver lining to the past year, it’s this: virtual court hearings.
In order to adhere to physical distancing mandates while continuing to operate, jurisdictions across the country have turned to holding court virtually, via Zoom or some other videoconferencing system. The virtual court hearings are procedurally identical to in-person appearances and offer the same outcomes. But, says Alexis Moore, California family law attorney, survivor and author of Surviving a Cyberstalker, they’re game-changers for domestic violence survivors.
“I have seen so many victims who were previously on the fence about going to court now having the confidence to face these domestic abusers, child molesters, rapists, etc. [because of virtual court],” Moore says. “It’s been game-changing.”
The Benefits of Virtual Court Hearings
The obvious and major benefit of the virtual court hearing is not having to be in the same physical space as an abuser. Not only is this intimidating for a survivor, making them less likely to agree to participate, but it also can be unsafe—especially considering that the time after a survivor leaves the relationship is the most dangerous.
“When you go to court, your batterer knows where you’ll be and when,” Moore says. “That’s when you’re at risk for things like being run off the road or your tires being slashed.”
With a virtual court hearing, on the other hand, you don’t need to be in the same building, jurisdiction or even state as an abuser.
“I practice in California, and I’ve had clients Zoom in from a safe place in Texas and Florida. So we’ve proven it can be done,” Moore says.
Other benefits of virtual court hearings are more logistical.
“It also means victims don’t have to worry about arranging for childcare, taking additional time off work, finding transportation or even paying for parking,” Moore says. “As insignificant as it might sound to some, it can be difficult for a victim of abuse to come up with the money to pay for parking.”
Virtual Court Hearing Dangers
As beneficial as they’ve proven to be, virtual court hearings aren’t the end-all be-all. Abusers will continue to do everything they can to exert power and control over their victims, as illustrated in this case, in which the abuser was found to be attending virtual court from the same location as the victim. (Fortunately, an attorney noticed, and the man was subsequently arrested for violating a no-contact order.)
But Moore says situations like these shouldn’t deter jurisdictions from offering virtual court hearings.
“This really isn’t any different from a batterer coming to a victim’s home or approaching her in the parking lot or hallway outside court to beg, pressure or threaten her to recant,” she says. “It happens all the time; virtual court operations aren’t to blame for this behavior.”
Moore says domestic violence programs can help mitigate these issues by having an advocate be by the survivor’s side to provide support during court, whether in person or virtual.
Are Virtual Court Hearings Here to Stay?
It remains to be seen whether or not jurisdictions will continue to offer virtual court hearings after the pandemic has ended. Moore is advocating they continue in California.
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“There are far more positives than negatives when it comes to virtual court,” she says. “Now that we know we can operate our courts, including our United States Supreme Court, remotely, why would we want to revictimize people by making them face their batterers in court?”
Regardless of whether or not virtual court hearings continue to be offered widely, Moore says you can always request a telephonic appearance. Just be sure to make the request in advance. In California, that means filling out a form online at least 10 days prior to the court date. Ask your attorney or domestic violence advocate about how to do it in your state.
Do you have a court date coming up? Read up on “Nine Ways to Prepare to Testify.”
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