COVID-19 Impacts on the Michigan Legal System

black and white gavel on desk

In the final portion of attorney Tom Sinas’ recent interview with WKTV “Journal in Focus,” the conversation shifted in focus to discussing COVID-19 impacts on the Michigan legal system (Part 1: Changes for Auto No-Fault Medical Providers; Part 2: The Problem with PIP “Choice“). Tom first begins the talk by reminding viewers that the jury trial is the hallmark of the American judicial system in both criminal and civil cases. It is perhaps the most important moment in a lawsuit that brings the parties toward finality. Tom then dives into explaining the overall domino effect of each step in the legal process backing up and what the legal system might look like in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Jury Trials Halted During COVID-19

All litigants involved in a criminal or civil case have the constitutional right to a jury trial. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic beginning in the spring of 2020, nearly all jury trials across Michigan (and the country) came to a halt. And when jury trials come to a halt, many other steps leading up to the jury trial also get backed up. In Kent County, criminal cases and serious injury civil cases, such as the cases we handle at the firm, all end up in the Kent County Circuit Court. Therefore, Kent County Circuit Court’s many judges handle mixed dockets. In the last year, with the halting of jury trials, these hard-working judges’ trial dockets therefore also backed up.

Under the Constitution, criminal trials receive priority over civil trials. Criminal defendants have certain constitutional rights – such as the right to a speedy trial – which move them up in priority over civil litigants. So when we have a situation where criminal defendants aren’t having their jury trials, civil litigants who are in line behind the criminal cases experience significant delays.

Further Docket Backups Due to Coronavirus Delays

To further complicate the issue, while so much of our lives changed over the last year, other aspects of life have resumed as normal. For instance, people have resumed activities and are getting hurt every day. While the number of people getting hurt has possibly decreased slightly, especially during times of strict lockdown, people are still getting hurt and still need access to the civil justice system. In addition to injuries still occurring, people are continuing to file other types of civil claims, such as divorce and custody claims, and, unfortunately, people are still committing crimes. So while much of the legal system came to a standstill, life has continued and further backlogged the legal system. This will be a particular problem across Michigan and all of the country, and specifically in busy urban legal communities.

Legal System Resuming in Michigan

Tom predicts that jury trials will resume to varying degrees and will be handled accordingly, primarily depending on how busy that particular area’s docket is. So the question becomes – how are we going to process this backlog of criminal and civil cases? How are we going to deliver people their constitutional right to a jury trial?

Prior to COVID, it generally 1-2 years to get your civil case to trial due to legal procedural steps, docket handling, and other factors. Now many people are wondering what the wait time will look like when criminal and civil cases haven’t taken place in over a year.

Finding Unique Solutions for Our Clients During Legal Uncertainty

In Tom’s practice, he asks himself “What can I do for my client to move this case forward judiciously and fairly despite the backlog in jury trials?” For our firm, we have fortunately figured out ways to move people through the legal system fairly and expeditiously, even throughout the pandemic. We look at the unique factors and desired outcomes of each case and pursue those outcomes to the best of our ability. While some cases cannot be resolved in this particular manner, many can. And this doesn’t mean we advise our clients to accept unfair settlements. Sometimes, it is in the best interest of our clients to wait it out. Yet plaintiff’s lawyers must now get more creative in case resolution than ever before in order to deliver the best conclusion for their clients. At Sinas Dramis, we closely analyze each of our client’s unique situations to best serve them during this historic and unprecedented time when our legal system has gone remote.

Tom describes instances in which both parties can use alternate dispute resolution such as arbitration or mediation. These terms of resolution require both parties to agree, however, and many times parties at odds have different incentives. In many of our firm’s cases, we are at odds with an insurance company that is more than happy to wait for a jury trial. Whichever party doesn’t want the finality of the case doesn’t have to agree to any alternate plans. Parties that don’t agree can attempt to perpetuate the delay.

Aftermath of COVID-19 on the Legal System

We all lived COVID-19 together and now we will all be living through the after-effects of it together. Tom predicts the legal system will need quite some time to smooth itself out. Previously in Tom’s interview, he described the impacts of the 2019 auto no-fault reforms as complex and uncertain. He goes on to state that the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal system can be described in the same way – as both complex and uncertain – and only time will tell how it all resolves.

Here for Our Clients – No Matter What

Regardless of the uncertainty and complexity, our attorneys are continually here for our clients. The weight of this uncertainty and complexity on anyone with claims currently in the legal system is tremendous. Tom represents many people with very serious injuries. He cannot imagine being seriously injured in the middle of a pandemic. Furthermore, for those injured in car accidents during the pandemic and during the major shift in the no-fault system and navigating the complexities of all of these things combined, the complexity is truly enormous. As attorneys and legal professionals, we do our best to support our clients during this very challenging time. We are not on hold, we are not putting our clients in a queue, we are still diligently pursuing every creative avenue possible to ensure each individual person is granted access to the legal rights and compensation they are entitled to.

Tom Sinas interview with WKTV “Journal In Focus”