Since the start of the pandemic, family and juvenile courts everywhere have scrambled to find ways to carry out their proceedings. In many cases, this has meant “virtual” hearings and trials over videoconferencing applications like Zoom. Despite some hiccups, this generally hasn’t prevented courts from performing their functions while protecting the rights of the parties. But as a case from Massachusetts shows, technological problems can sometimes impact the fairness of a proceeding to the point where the result has to be thrown out.
The case was a proceeding in which the state sought to terminate a mother’s and father’s parental rights. The child had been in the custody of the department of children and families since 2014, when she was four. The goal at that time was to reunite her with her parents, but by 2016 the goal changed to adoption and the child was placed with a preadoptive family.
In September 2020, several months into the pandemic, a trial was held in juvenile court to determine whether it was in the child’s best interests for her parents’ rights to be terminated, freeing her up for adoption.
The first day of trial, held over Zoom, was plagued with technical glitches, making it impossible for the mother to participate by phone or video and interrupting the testimony of the state’s witnesses. As a result the mother, who was not represented by an attorney, missed almost all the state’s evidence against her.
When the trial resumed two days later, the mother had to try and cross-examine witnesses whose testimony she had missed. The judge ended up ordering the termination of rights and denied the mother’s request for a new trial.
But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the decision, ruling that the trial as conducted was unfair and in violation of the mother’s right to due process of law, and ordered a new trial.
The court made clear that a virtual trial is not, in and of itself, unfair and can be considered perfectly acceptable as long as all the parties’ rights are safeguarded. But the case does highlight the challenges of doing justice online.