Marriage is going digital. Is divorce far behind?
New York City, the epicenter of the Covid–19 outbreak, is geared up to offer couples virtual marriage licenses. A trip to downtown Manhattan and a long wait in line are no longer required to get hitched after New York’s Governor Cuomo waived the requirement for licenses to be obtained in person. It’s a sign of the times that the City’s IT department created an online marriage license bureau, named Project Cupid.
On the other side of the white picket fence, divorce lawyers across the country, like myself, are receiving a spike in calls from married couples who are melting down from living together during the stay-at-home orders and guidelines. After years of being together-apart in the same household and sometimes barely tolerating each other, some couples are at the end of their ropes and looking for a divorce.
The problem is most courthouses across the country are closed, and new divorce filings can’t go forward, so any partners looking to start a divorce during the pandemic have been put on hold.
But there is light at the end of the quarantine tunnel. Divorce court has gone partially virtual for existing cases that were already pending before the virus shut down the City. Indeed, it is a strange experience to be “walking down the hallways” of virtual justice.
Last week, with the courthouse closed, I attended a court conference via Skype Business with several lawyers wearing business suits visible in different video screens, arguing in front of a judge who was at his dining room table. From my perspective, digital divorce court turned out to be an effective model. It reduced attorney grandstanding and blustering perfectly. Legal posturing was constricted to a limited time slot, which automatically ended with the screen going to black. What a gift to see fellow lawyers have to conserve their words to beat the clock and avoid an abrupt video disconnect. If they had more to say it was too late. The judge had already moved along to the next video conference screen to offer triage to other parties.
Another perceived benefit of this new legal world is that Skype Court artificially keeps warring couples separated by computer screens, rather than at side-by-side court room tables. The negative energy that can permeate a typical divorce courtroom was diluted by video screens.
But virtual divorce court is not all it’s cracked up to be. Taking divorces fully on-line to maintain social distancing would surely diminish the impact of being able to examine husbands and wives under oath effectively and for maximum impact. During depositions and trials, for example, attorneys look for those little nuances of body language, like sweat on the brow, clenched fists, tapping feet, hand gestures, nervous tics and involuntary facial expressions that give insight about a witness’s credibility. It makes it much easier for a testifying spouse, investigator, or expert to feel emboldened or even protected by the shield of a computer screen, which can alter the tone of their testimony. Identifying those subtle clues can make a big difference in the outcome of a divorce.
A virtual divorce would alleviate stress for couples who are on pause with a currently backed up legal system. But on-line divorce court would result in a less powerful forum to achieve equity, in a system where it’s so important to see the humanity.