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Remote appearances have saved lawyers and witnesses travel time, relieved court congestion, while offering clients the ability to watch the proceedings from home. With mask mandates in place, remote appearances allow an opportunity for many to evaluate facial expressions and hear clearly words that may otherwise be muffled.

However attorneys who practice worker’s compensation law in California received notification that the WCAB will be reopening for Trials, Lien Trials and Expedited Hearings beginning Monday, March 21. Conferences and walk throughs will continue to be remote only. The DWC Newsline will be released within the next few days.

And state courts have started to move in the same direction. After Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted most of the state’s indoor masking requirements Feb. 15, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued an order last week withdrawing effective April 30, several court emergency orders she imposed in March 2020.

One order allows judges in felony criminal cases to hold a preliminary hearing 30 days after a defendant is charged, instead of the previous 10-day deadline. At a preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether prosecutors have presented enough evidence to proceed with their case.  Another order extended by 60 days the previous deadlines for starting trials in civil cases.

Cantil-Sakauye also revoked orders that gave local courts broad authority to conduct proceedings remotely, and that allowed courts to adopt pandemic-related rules without 45 days of public comment, as previously required.

Citing Newsom’s orders, the chief justice said, “these events mark an important and hopeful change as the residents and government of our state transition to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 California”

In a follow-up action, the state Judicial Council, chaired by Cantil-Sakauye, said it would meet Friday to consider repealing the remaining emergency court rules as of June 30.

A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Judicial Council adopted emergency rule 3, which became effective on April 6, 2020. This emergency rule authorized courts to hold proceedings remotely via videoconference or by phone. The council has now said it would consider sponsoring legislation that would preserve, by state law rather than regulations, the current system authorizing remote appearances.

Cantil-Sakauye’s order on Thursday does not mean the end of remote hearings in state courts other than the WCAB. The state’s legislature in September passed a law that will allow courts to hold civil proceedings remotely until at least July 2023.

Senate Bill 241 enacted the new Code of Civil Procedure section 367.75, which will be effective from January 1, 2022 through July 1, 2023, authorizes at least some litigants, witnesses, judges, lawyers and even jurors to voluntarily appear in a case by video.

The judiciary recently upgraded 500 courtrooms to allow for video appearances. Los Angeles County Superior Court alone conducts about 5,000 remote proceedings a day, according to the Judicial Council.

At a May legislative hearing, Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Tara Desautels raved about remote appearances and trials, saying “our jurors love it.”

But interpreters and court reporters told a different story, one of video participants being accidentally shut out of hearings, sketchy technology dropping participants and one litigant’s image going dark after his cellphone minutes ran out.

Employee groups thus negotiated a July 2023 sunset clause added to C.C.P. 367.75, meaning that remote civil proceedings will end 18 months after the bill takes effect unless lawmakers agree to extend its provisions.