PROVIDENCE — They were ready in court Thursday night — on couches in their living rooms, at kitchen tables, and in their home offices, each person tuning in remotely instead of milling about in a courthouse, waiting for their divorce cases to be heard.
This was the debut of Rhode Island’s first virtual night court, a two-day pilot program that Family Court Chief Judge Michael B. Forte came up with to try to handle a significant backlog caused by the pandemic shutdowns.
The virtual night court went live at 6:30 p.m. on Forte’s YouTube channel, with court staff, lawyers, and people seeking divorces each calling in from their homes.
Forte was home, wearing his black robes, and using a virtual background of a law library, designed by the IT department for this purpose.
No, virtual night court doesn’t have the cool jazz intro of the 1980s TV sitcom. And Forte admitted he wasn’t going to challenge Municipal Chief Judge Frank Caprio on his TV series, “Caught in Providence.”
But this was history happening on a livestream, glitches and all, and if Forte decides this works, the new night court could help the public resolve their divorce cases a lot faster — and safer, during the pandemic.
“Who would have thought 25 years ago you could have seven people from all across the state on the screen at night court,” marveled Pawtucket lawyer Christopher Lefebvre as he waited for the next case to start. “Technology is wonderful.”
When the pandemic began in mid-March, the Rhode Island judiciary decided to temporarily suspend divorce hearings and other proceedings deemed nonessential. By mid-April, the Family Court started conducting hearings remotely using the WebEx videoconferencing platform for uncontested divorces.
However, because remote hearings are scheduled into appointed time slots, it decreases the number of matters that can be taken up each day, creating a backlog for the resolution of divorces. Family Court is now scheduling domestic matters — divorce and child support — into December, said judiciary spokesman Craig Berke.
“When I learned in early July that the earliest a couple could get a hearing on an uncontested divorce was November, that was unacceptable,” Forte said in a statement announcing virtual night court. “We want to address the backlog, but we also want to take advantage of the remote hearing technology we have been using since this past spring and provide hearings during evening or non-working hours that are more convenient for many people.”
Forte chose to use the night court for uncontested divorces, in which the couples have worked out a property settlement, child custody, and other issues without the need for a trial. The court’s role is to ensure that the agreements are fair, the couples are satisfied, and formally grant the divorce.
Over a few hours Thursday night, Forte handled nine cases and plans to handle another nine for the second session of night court on Aug. 20.
Instead of months, the cases took mere minutes to be heard and formalized.
As one case concluded, the now-ex-wife and her son smiled from what appeared to be their living room. Just before the livestream ended, she sighed and said, “That’s a relief!”