We learned through the pandemic that allowing residents to appear in court via telephone or video conference significantly increased their participation. Some courts were doing evictions telephonically while others were handling such cases virtually, such as on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This version of “virtual court” was permissible under a Supreme Court order allowing proceedings to occur virtually during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, most courts prohibited appearances telephonically, and we are unaware of any court in the entire state that held eviction hearings via video conference.
On Friday, April 16, 2021, Governor Ducey signed a bill (making it law – ARS 22-206) that makes such “virtual” appearances permanent. The law reads:
NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER LAW, IN A SPECIAL DETAINER OR FORCIBLE DETAINER PROCEEDING BEFORE THE COURT, ANY PARTY, INCLUDING AN ATTORNEY OR WITNESS UPON WRITTEN NOTICE TO THE COURT, SHALL BE PERMITTED TO PARTICIPATE AT THE INITIAL APPEARANCE REMOTELY BY USING A TELEPHONE OR VIDEO CONFERENCE CONNECTION. IF THE COURT CONTINUES A CONTESTED MATTER TO A LATER DATE, AT THE DISCRETION OF THE COURT, THE COURT MAY REQUIRE ALL PARTIES, ATTORNEYS AND WITNESSES TO PARTICIPATE IN PERSON.
This means that for initial hearings in eviction actions, the courts are to allow attorneys, parties, and their witnesses to appear virtually. If a trial is necessary, the court can require parties to appear in person so that the judge is better suited to see the witnesses and gauge the credibility of their testimony.
This bill was very hotly contested. Many tenant advocates took the position that this was a detriment to residents. They alleged that such telephonic appearances were not fair and deprived residents of their rights. On the other hand, the bill sponsors argued that the law now makes it easier for residents to appear and those residents, that worry about such virtual appearances, are still able to appear in person. In other words, they can get the benefit of both systems – they can appear in person if they want, or if they want, they can call in. The benefit of virtual appearances is that a resident can still make it to a court hearing even if they have to work or if the court is far from their residence. Virtual appearances allow greater access to the courts. Also, this makes it easier for witnesses, such as neighbors and police, to appear and give testimony where they otherwise would not have been able to attend court. It is our belief, whenever a judge can get more testimony and more evidence, it is more likely the appropriate outcome will be reached – that goes for both sides of litigation.
Some courts have already started developing and testing new software for use of video conferences. We will keep AZREIA members updated on how such technology is rolled out.
by Mark B. Zinman, Attorney, Zona Law Group