MATHEWS: Tips for virtual referee hearings

The COVID-19 pandemic has required many organizations to rethink how they offer services.  The Cass County Friend of the Court is no different. We have changed how we get information out to clients and how we offer our FOC Orientation and SMILE program. But the biggest change has probably been how hearings are held.  Before COVID-19, initial hearings on family motions involving custody, parenting time, or child support were held in court in person in front of an attorney referee. Now, with the Law and Courts Building having limited public access, our referees have moved to holding hearings either by telephone or Zoom to ensure timely court access on pending matters.

As our referees have conducted Zoom hearings, we have learned what works well and what does not and thought it would be a good idea to share these tips with parents or attorneys appearing for a Zoom hearing. First, testing out the computer or phone you are going to use in advance is a good idea so you can troubleshoot any issues. You may need to download the Zoom app for your computer or phone. Finding out that your computer’s microphone doesn’t work or that your computer needs to download the Zoom app before it will work at 8:55 a.m. when you have a 9 a.m. Zoom hearing is not pleasant and only adds to the stress a hearing can cause.  If you need assistance troubleshooting an issue when you are testing Zoom, check out the tutorials found on Zoom’s website at: support.zoom.us.

Second, set up your Zoom profile to include your name and picture. When you log into a Zoom hearing, you will be put into a waiting room where you can’t see or hear other participants. The Referee will admit you to the hearing with all the other participants when the hearing starts.  If your profile is set up to have your name and picture, the Referee can easily see you in the waiting room, confirm you are a party to a hearing, and admit you. If your account is set to a nick name and a picture of your dog, it is harder for the referee to know you are present and ready in the waiting room. If during the hearing, your video is turned off, your name and picture will appear in place of your video until your video is turned back on.

Third, remember just because the hearing is held via Zoom doesn’t change the fact that it is a court proceeding. You should be dressed appropriately for court — if you wouldn’t wear it to court, don’t wear it for the Zoom hearing. Make sure your outfit is appropriate for moving around or standing during the hearing as participants may see more than just the top of your outfit if you stand up or move around.

Pick an appropriate area to sit during the Zoom hearing. You should not conduct a Zoom hearing from your bathroom or in a room full of people talking. Be respectful during the hearing. If you need to take a break to use the restroom, ask to take a break so that the referee can pause the hearing for all participants. Remember if you wouldn’t do it in the courtroom, don’t do it during the hearing. Smoking, vaping, eating, taking phone calls, etc. can all wait until a break or until the hearing is over.

Finally, remember to be patient. Virtual hearings are new, and everyone is adjusting to them. You may have to wait while a referee assists another participant with muting their microphone to stop feedback. In some hearings, Referees have had to call participants on the phone because they didn’t have a microphone and then make sure everyone on the Zoom call can hear the person on the phone.  Just like an in-person courtroom hearing, things may not run smoothly or as planned during a virtual hearing. Just be patient.

If you have questions about the FOC that you think would be helpful to address in future columns, please send them to the FOC email address:  foc@cassco.org.

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