If you're browsing this website, you probably have a legal question and may be wondering how the pandemic could impact your case. We get this question fairly often and wanted to briefly summarize what has changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of how we practice law in Texas so that clients and prospective clients are aware of what to expect. Here are some of the highlights:
1. Many (but not all) hearings are remote. In Harris County and most courts in Fort Bend County, Texas, the courts are still utilizing Zoom and WebEx to host routine hearings in civil and criminal matters. A few jurisdictions have returned to in-person hearings due to the difficultly of presenting evidence via video conferencing software tools. The Supreme Court of Texas lifted the requirement that hearings be performed remotely, but the vast majority of courts are taking the pandemic seriously and are continuing to host hearings in a manner that promotes social distancing. If you live in an outlying county (such as Brazoria, Austin, Fort Bend, or Montgomery), you may need to physically appear in court. Your attorney (or the court staff if you are a pro se litigant) will let you know ahead of time what to expect. If you are a party or witness in an in-person hearing, you will be required to wear a mask and may be screened for symptoms before you are allowed into the building. In either case, proper courtroom attire and behavior is still a requirement.
2. Texas law has embraced technology. One of the legal updates brought on by the pandemic is that Texas notaries are now authorized to perform notarizations remotely. This means that as long as the notary is physically present in the state of Texas, with the proper certification, he or she can notarize documents using video conferencing software with the participants. Another recent change to the law is that plaintiffs seeking to give notice to a defendant may serve the defendant via email if the defendant cannot be personally served with notice of the lawsuit. Most people have email addresses, and finally the law has moved on from the antiquated process of “substituted service” that required a legal notice to be published in a circulating newspaper. This is a welcome change to attorneys!
3. The courts and many state agencies are experiencing a backlog. If you're experiencing delays in your legal matter or even in something as simple as renewing your driver's license, you are not alone. The pandemic substantially slowed some of the routine aspects of access to justice. In Harris County, a new court was authorized in 2021 to assist with the current caseload of criminal matters facing the overwhelmed judiciary. In large counties, many employees were required to work from home or were furloughed for months out of an abundance of caution when the pandemic first began. During this time, a skeleton crew of essential workers were left to handle the tasks typically performed by a full staff. A little patience will go a long way if you've been impacted by these changes.