Illinois Divorce Hearings During The COVID-19 pandemic
As of the date of this article’s publication, April 19, 2020, courts in Cook County, Illinois are currently operating on a very limited basis. Also, as of this date, Cook County Courts are scheduled to reopen on May 18, 2020. You can read more about the closure and steps during this pandemic here. Illinois courts are essentially frozen in time until the pandemic is over but the lives of divorcing people in Illinois are not frozen. If you have a pending divorce or parentage case in Chicago and/or Cook County, Illinois you need to know how hearings are going to work during this corona virus pandemic..
What Happens To My Chicago Divorce Case?
Divorce cases that don’t have a lot of activity, meaning if there are not active motions being filed or hearings being scheduled, are being generally continued until after the May 18, 2020 date. Upon the courts reopening after this statewide government lockdown, you will go to court to reset whatever is was previously scheduled. This delay was done by the courts to ensure that parties are not being exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
Parties may want to consider various alternatives outside of divorce court until this pandemic is finally over.
Can I Have Hearings During The Closure In My Illinois Divorce?
Before a divorce case is over via trial or agreement, there are usually a variety of smaller matters that help resolve temporary issues and push the case forward to finalization. These matters, when put before a judge are called “hearings ” Hearings are still available to resolve temporary and non-evidentiary matters all through Illinois during this COVID-19 crisis. To keep up with the demand and deal with matters that are either emergencies or agreed in nature, the Cook Cook courts have implemented new policies and procedures. In Chicago, there are lots of hearings, pretrials, prove ups and emergency motions conducted telephonically or via video conference. The focus of this article is about how to prepare for and partake in such a hearing.
Telephone Conferences In An Illinois Divorce
The easiest way to do a family law related hearing remotely is over the telephone.
This is now permitted under new Illinois Supreme Court rules.
“[T]he court may, upon request or on its own order, allow a case participant to participate in a civil or criminal matter remotely, including by telephone or video conference.” Illinois Supreme Court Rule 245
Your lawyer and the opposing lawyer will communicate with the judge’s coordinator about scheduling a hearing. Some judges prefer doing conducting a hearing over the telephone. Your attorney will give you the information such as date and time for the hearing once it has been scheduled. The actual mechanics of the call are important and often overlooked. If you are scheduled for a telephone conference with the court, it is imperative that you follow the following steps to ensure proper communication, a professional presence, and effective contact.
- Use a landline if you have one. In this day and age, most people don’t have landlines. Landlines provide the best connectivity over the telephone and provide uninterrupted communication. This would remove any worry about being disconnected during the call or otherwise having a choppy signal. However, realistically, most people will do this on their cellphone. If do not have a landline, make the call over your wifi network NOT your cellular network.
- Go to a quiet room in the house. If you, as the client, are participating in this telephone hearing, it is because you are required to be there. That means you will be actively involved at some point, if not for the duration of the call. There should not be other noises that can distract the participants of the call or interrupt the conversation. Background noise can be very easily picked up by cellphones with their multiple microphones and advanced voice recognition technology, so someone talking loudly in your nearby vicinity will likely be picked up. It is best to go to an isolated area of your house or apartment. Talking outside is also a good option if you can be assured that there won’t be sirens or volume from traffic.
- Make sure you get good reception. Cellphone signal can become very choppy and a lot of common places have dead zones, and each cellphone service provider has different areas of coverage and dead zones. It is important to talk from somewhere you know does not have any dead zones so that you don’t risk falling out of the call or otherwise missing a word of phrase of a question or sentence. Besides losing your place in the call, this can have seriously adverse effects if you miss a qualifying word and answer incorrectly. For example, “will this not affect your child negatively?” and “will this affect your child negatively?” can have two different responses, “yes” and “no” depending on which question above you think you heard, but missing the key word “not” can totally provide the incorrect response.
- Make sure to be in a familiar surrounding. Talk somewhere you have been before and are familiar with. You want to be comfortable during the call. While this is not likely to be an issue at home, if you are elsewhere, be comfortable in that location. You want to be focused without distractions.
- Speak clearly and try to avoid a lot of physical activity during the call. It is common for someone working from home to walk around the house, up and down stairs, or otherwise pace while talking on the phone. If you start getting out of breath or start breathing a little heavier, it can be heard and awkward for everyone. More importantly, you should be sitting with and taking notes during a call with a judge.
Video Conferences In An Illinois Divorce
New rules have been enacted to accommodate video in lieu of in-person testimony in an Illinois divorce matter.
“The court may, upon request or on its own order, for good cause and upon appropriate safeguards, allow a case participant to testify or otherwise participate in a civil trial or evidentiary hearing by video conferencing from a remote location.” Illinois Supreme Court Rule 241
During this COVID-19 crisis, most Chicago judges prefer doing their hearings, prove ups, pretrials and case management conferences via video conferencing software. The application known as Zoom has become the default choice for everyone in Cook County, Illinois. If your case is in Chicago, you can rest assured that if you have a hearing, it will be conducted via Zoom.
What is Zoom?
Zoom is a platform for video conferencing such as Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Webex. It functions exactly the same way and can be operated on a desktop computer, a laptop computer, or your smartphone.
Zoom is a preferred choice probably for the ease of use it provides, the quick and intuitive interface, and the lack of a barrier to entry. It’s free for the public (with certain limitations for length of conferences) but it will satisfy most of the requirements of a simple court hearing. You can either use Zoom via the internet or download an app on your computer or smartphone. I recommend downloading the app because it is much easier to use than navigating a website that may or may not load properly with all the plugins.
Remember to make sure you enable your video camera and microphone. Make sure your volume is up, so people can see and hear you, and you can hear them.
What do I need for Zoom? Besides the technical requirements for installing Zoom on your device, you will need a smartphone or computer with a webcam and microphone.
To this end, when doing a hearing over Zoom, you will be seen. Zoom, by default, switches between the participants based on who is talking and any movement it captures. There are easy ways to make yourself look and sound great on Zoom, as if it is a professional video operation, and equally easy to do the opposite. If you ensure these steps are adhered to, you can have a very consistent, professional, and aesthetically pleasing video conference.
Lighting is of paramount importance during any video conference. The source, quality, and vibrancy of the light can make you look like a movie star or make you look haggard. Whenever you are on a video conference, make sure you minimize backlight and have a bright light behind your camera that is shining on your face. You will have to experiment with the lighting to get it perfect, but the key is to minimize backlight. If there is light behind you, then it will be picked up by the camera and you will be completely in shadow and appear dark with minimal light. You may have to turn off lights behind you or close the blinds if you have windows shining lights inside behind you. If you have light to your sides or above you, they will cast shadows over your face that may or may not be appealing. Having light behind the camera so you are facing it is the best way to ensure that you are getting the best, most vibrant appearance. However, this is not a challenge to see how bright a light you can get. If too bright, your face will be drowned out and will appear entirely white. The right amount is key and requires experimentation. There are multiple ways to achieve this. Direct or natural sunlight. If you have a window and can face the window with a wall behind you, the sunlight shining of your face will give you all the light you need to look good. If this is not possible, then a desk lamp or a lamp of any kind behind the camera can do the trick just as well.
Height of the camera. The camera position is important. If you are doing this on a laptop or desktop computer with a webcam, you will want to experiment with positioning well before the time for the hearing so you can get the optimal position for the camera. If it is too low and you are looking down at it, it will capture you from below and will capture your neck looking up. This is not a flattering angle for anyone. Ideally, you will want the camera looking ever so slightly down at you or at the same height as your eyes so you are looking straight at it. If you are using a smartphone, this can be achieved by your arm and hand position. If you have a laptop however, then you will have to get creative. One method is to try to stack books or other things on top of one another to achieve the desired height. While you have to make sure the base is sturdy, this is a quick way to get the optimal height.
Camera Distance from you. You will want to maintain an appropriate distance from the camera, but not too close or far. You will want to ensure that you are framed in the center, with a little background behind you. If you are too close, it doesn’t look professional and can become distracting. If you are too far behind, you seem distant and the microphone may not pick up your talking. So experimenting with the right distance is optimal.
Your background should be clean, tidy and appropriate for a judicial proceeding. You want to ensure that you don’t have clutter or mess behind you. This can be distracting or create a sense about you before you say a single word. You are essentially letting people see into your house. You want to make a good impression that is professional and free of mess. To this point, please ensure that you let everyone in the house know not to walk into the shot or otherwise make any noises that could be captured by the background. We see videos on the internet about kids running into the video or similar occurrences. While these videos are funny in retrospect, distractions make everyone lose focus.
Dress as if they are actually going to court when they do the video conference. It is too easy to get complacent and join the video conference in a t-shirt, sweatshirt, or similar top. While it’s understandable you are at home and are wearing what you would wear at home, you are technically attending a judicial proceeding and carries the same weight that a hearing in court would have. The judge is the same judge. Therefore, it is much more professional, and you will appear much more professional, if you wear the same outfit that you would wear to court. The added bonus of dressing up in your own house is you will psychologically feel more professional and this can be felt just in your presence on the video conference. Regardless of whether other people are dressed up in the call or not, it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed.
These are some general thoughts on how to try to master your next telephone or video conference with the Cook County Court during these strange times. Given the detailed procedures set forth by the Cook County courts, it is possible to imagine these remote hearing procedures being implemented for months, if not years to come, in Chicago divorces.
The chief judge of the Cook County domestic relations division has issued an order on May 1, 2020 regarding electronic hearings which includes the following directives and prohibitions.
“1. No one other than the judge, court personnel or a certified court reporter shall take screenshots, record, or otherwise make an audio or visual record of the proceeding. Litigants and their attorneys are permitted to take notes of the proceeding as they would if the proceeding were conducted in person.
2. No minor child is permitted to be present during any portion of the proceeding (e.g. in the room or within earshot of the device used by the participant) unless the court finds it is impracticable to enforce this
Paragraph and no reasonable alternative can be utilized.
3. At the commencement of every hearing, each participant shall identify every person in their presence as well as if/when anyone enters or leaves the room in which the participant is located.
4. If an Order to exclude witnesses has been entered, it is each party’s obligation to ensure the Order is obeyed. The sanction for failure to do so may include, but not be limited to, barring the testimony of the witness and exercise of the Court’s contempt power.
5. In light of the inherent difficulties in conducting hearings remotely, every participant shall use their best efforts to be courteous to one another, including but not limited to the following:
i. Not speak over one another;
ii. Insure to the best of their ability that they are in camera range at all times;
iii. Minimize background noise; and
iv. Silence their phones during the hearing.
6. No communication of any kind is permitted between a witness, including a party, during his testimony (from the time the witness takes the stand until the witness is excused) and any other person by any means (e.g. verbally, texts, email, use of private chat functions, etc.).” Cook County Domestic Relations General Order 2020 D 21
If you’d like to schedule a hearing in your Illinois divorce case despite the courts being closed of the COVID-19 pandemic, contact my Chicago, Illinois family law firm. We’ll have our own telephone conference to discuss all of your options.