Since March 2020, jury trials have been suspended at varying times in the six New England states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Due to the recent spike in COVID-19 infections across the region, many courts have delayed the resumption of criminal or civil jury trials.
Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine had all scheduled limited resumption of jury trials between August 2020 and November 2020. All four states have recently postponed conducting all jury trials due to increased cases of COIVD-19 in their respective states. While each state is evaluating the risks and needs of continuation of jury trials, the consideration of resumption is for criminal matters only. None of the above states have indicated when civil jury trials will resume.
New Hampshire and Rhode Island resumed jury trials in August and September 2020, respectively. This occurred only for criminal cases in certain courthouses. On December 11, 2020, New Hampshire suspended jury trials through the end of 2020 due to increased cases of COVID-19. Rockingham, Hillsborough Northern District, Cheshire, and Merrimack Counties have resumed scheduled criminal trials in January 2021. Jury trials in Sullivan, Strafford, Belknap, and Hillsborough Southern District Counties remain canceled through January 2021. There has been no official suspension of criminal jury trials in Rhode Island. Courthouses that can adhere to social distancing guidelines were permitted to continue jury trials only with permission from the presiding justice. However, with increases in infections, criminal jury trials will likely be heard slowly, and the docket will become backlogged. As a result, civil jury trials surely will not convene until well into 2021.
Without the possibility of a civil jury trial in any of the New England states on the horizon, parties should be flexible in exploring avenues to move cases forward. Mediation and arbitration are excellent avenues to utilize in assisting parties in reaching a compromise. However, if either party is insistent upon their position and unwilling to compromise, a bench trial is a possible solution that has certain advantages. While jury trials can inject passion and an emotional aspect to a case, a bench trial can offer a more analytical approach. Also, a bench trial offers a final resolution, as opposed to mediation or non-binding arbitration. Bench trials often are shorter in duration and more cost-effective because the parties can occasionally avoid some formal evidentiary procedures of a jury trial.
For various reasons, some cases are simply more suitable for trial before a jury, but parties should be cognizant of the limited access to juries in the future. For practical reasons, all ongoing and recently filed cases in any of the New England states should be evaluated for possible resolution without the use of a jury trial.