How Courts Have Been Handling Family and Divorce Related Hearings, Conferences, and Trials in 2020
Family law matters that need to be decided by a court such as custody, relocation, child and spousal support, alimony, contempt of court issues, and division of property are heard by and decided by a master or a judge. There are no jury trials.
In normal times, our courts handle an enormous case load of family law and other legal matters. When the courts shut down due to the pandemic, everything was postponed. Now, as the courts are reopening in phases, they are working through a substantial accumulation of delayed cases as well as new matters that are being filed.
So what are courts doing to accommodate the large number of family law cases that need to be heard?
I share below what the courts have been doing since March 2020.
Originally when courts shut down in March 2020, everything was on hold and the backlog of cases grew. By April 2020, courts in most counties started to implement trials, hearings and conferences by telephone or zoom.
Early in April, I was scheduled for a zoom trial before a judge and since then have had several zoom conferences and zoom trials before judges, settlement conferences before masters via zoom, as well as support conferences by telephone conferencing.
I found them all to be handled professionally, fairly and efficiently.
All evidence, exhibits and pretrial statements were required to be submitted to the court and opposing counsel five days in advance.
Court personnel were responsible for sharing the screen so all attorneys, litigants and witnesses could see the evidence. And because everything was exchanged with each other five days in advance all witnesses and attys had the ability to print them and have the actual documents in their hands right in front of them.
The hearing was held like any other hearing. The Rules of Evidence were followed. Clients and witnesses were seen by all and their credibility was able to be evaluated.
At masters hearings, the master took charge, shared findings on the screen asked questions and allowed everyone an opportunity to be heard.
Recently many counties, if not all, have opened the physical courthouse with safety precautions in place.
- Temperatures are taken as you walk into the courthouse.
- Masks are required in all common areas.
- Only two people are allowed in an elevator at a time.
- There is no congregating in the courtroom or hallways.
- Only one case is called to be in a courtroom at a time.
Once in the courtroom, social distancing is to be observed. Attorneys are to sit six feet away from their clients and six feet away from opposing counsel and party as well as six feet away from the judge and other court personnel.
If the court reporter has trouble hearing the attorneys and witnesses, the court reporter could ask the attorney and witness to remove their masks.
In some counties, the judges and masters may offer attorneys, litigants and witnesses the choice to take off their masks during court proceedings in general. This is a concern.
In my opinion, telling people in the court room that they may remove their mask defeats the purpose of social distancing and the importance of wearing masks inside a building. If an attorney, witness or party is uncomfortable with others taking their masks off in the courtroom, there is nothing they can do.
The judges in some counties will not allow attorneys, litigants and witnesses who are not comfortable coming into the courthouse and into the courtroom to have the choice not to come. Even if both counsel and both parties ask to have the trial proceed via zoom, the court may not allow it and instead require all participants to appear in court in person.
In some counties the court has taken the position that if an attorney is not comfortable coming to court, they must send another attorney in their place to handle the case. If a party or witness is uncomfortable coming to court they may not be excused.
There is so much unknown about this disease and so many conflicting reports as to what is safe and what isn’t, what contributes to the spread of the disease and what doesn’t, I believe people should be able to make their own decision as to what is safe for them and their families where there are safe, effective technological alternatives.
In the meantime, the divorce and family law attorneys of Shemtob Draganosky Taylor can guide you through all aspects of your divorce in all formats – phone, zoom, and in-person court proceedings. Call us at (215) 544-3974 for a confidential discussion.