After receiving numerous public comments, on January 7, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered that virtual jury trials are to proceed, starting on February 1, 2021. They will be implemented in a two phase approach in a limited number of vicinages on a voluntary basis starting February 1, 2021 and on a mandatory basis statewide starting on April 5, 2021.
The rationale appears to be able to move cases to a resolution. Without facing a trial, often parties are not realistic in trying to resolve their case. No doubt many cases will settle to avoid a virtual jury trial.
The Court noted that “countless civil litigants whose trials have been indefinitely delayed during the pandemic have not been able to resolve important disputes” and that the courts and attorneys have developed expertise in participating in virtual proceedings. Further, with training and support from the Judiciary, New Jersey residents have been able to serve as jurors in hybrid trials and grand jury panels, using their own technology or technology provided by the courts.
Hence, the Supreme Court entered an order that, during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, all civil jury trials will be conducted in a virtual format. In the first phase, consent to proceed remotely will be required. Phase 1 will include a limited number of vicinages: Atlantic/Cape May; Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem; Monmouth; Passaic; and Union. Phase 2 will start on or after April 5, 2021 and virtual civil jury trials will expand to all counties and no consent will be required. Phase 2 will continue as long as necessary based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
While all civil cases will be eligible for virtual civil jury trials, to the extent possible, each county will begin with cases involving a single plaintiff, a single defendant, a limited number of issues in dispute, and a modest number of live witnesses. Jury selection will be entirely virtual. Empaneled jurors will participate remotely with tablets provided by the court unless they can demonstrate that they are able to use their own technology.
At the pretrial conference with the judge, all aspects of the virtual process will be covered, including whether the judge, attorneys, and parties will be present in the courtroom or whether any or all of them will participate remotely. The judges and attorneys may agree to a hybrid format with the judge, attorneys, and witnesses participating from the courtroom.
The first virtual civil jury trials will be recorded and may be used for purposes of attorney and juror training for future virtual jury trials.
Betsy G. Ramos, Esq. is a member of the firm’s Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Litigation Group. She is an experienced litigator with over 30 years’ experience handling diverse matters. Her practice areas include tort defense, insurance coverage, Tort Claims Act and civil rights defense, business litigation, employment litigation, construction litigation, estate litigation and general litigation.