March 26, 2020
COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the U.S., with over 75,000 confirmed cases in the country as of today's date. Medical experts have urged people to help "flatten the curve" and slow the spread of this deadly disease through social distancing. As a result, local and state governments have shut down nonessential businesses and ordered people to stay home—191 million Americans in 19 states, 45 counties, and 18 cities have been told to shelter in place or stay home.
Courthouses are closing all across the country to help prevent further spread of the Coronavirus. On March 13, 2020, the United States Supreme Court announced it would close until further notice due to COVID-19 related health and safety concerns. This is the first disease-related Supreme Court closure since the 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak.
Following this announcement, many state and federal courts also closed, limited court services, and/or suspended jury trials. Law360.com is keeping track of federal and state court closures with an interactive map that's updated regularly.
According to the American Bar Association state courts are taking independent action to close courtrooms and/or delay jury trials as follows:
Despite these general closures and case delays, many family law courts are still allowing emergency hearings and requests for Domestic Violence Restraining Orders (DVROs) to take place by phone. Search online for your county and/or state court website's family law division to find out whether they are open and what services they continue to provide.
Family law cases often involve challenging and highly-emotional issues, including the breakdown of a marriage, child custody, domestic violence, property division, and financial support.
The devastating emotional, financial, and medical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the essential shelter-in-place orders, will no doubt make divorce and custody cases more challenging. Family law attorneys are often a lifeline in a turbulent time. How can people dealing with divorce or custody issues get the help they need while isolated at home?
I spoke to several Family Law Attorneys across the country to find out how COVID-19 was affecting their practice. Although many courts are temporarily closed, all of the attorneys I spoke with are still available to clients via phone or virtual meeting services.
"I'm in Harris County, Houston—the largest county in Texas. Most court hearings have been postponed until after April 30. However, judges can perform emergency hearings in person or remotely at their discretion. Case deadlines are all extended. Court clerks are available by email only, and courts have shortened their hours. Harris County issued a stay home/work safe order, so working remotely is mandatory for most attorneys at this point. Most communication with clients is being done via email or phone." — Kristina Otterstrom, Family Law Attorney in Texas.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Livingston County, Michigan significantly. Courts are closed, except for essential hearings, and judges have requested electronic communications for hearings that can't wait. I've had motions taken off the docket without a new date, and I will not be taking on any new clients until the crisis is over. I'm a solo practitioner and have always worked out of a home office. Still, the pandemic has resulted in email and telephone communication only with clients and a loss of income from potential new clients. We all must do our part, however, and we'll get through it together." — Melissa Heinig, Family Law Attorney in Michigan.
"Here in Atlanta, it's definitely had an impact—a superior court clerk employee in my county died yesterday of Coronavirus, so they're closing the office down for a number of weeks. The office isn't even open for TPOs (Temporary Protective Orders), which I would assume counts as an "essential" service. The Supreme Court issued an order tolling all deadlines and canceling nonessential matters through April 13th, but most people expect that date to be extended. I've had most court dates postponed, although I did have one status conference take place by phone." — Aaron Thomas, Family Law Attorney in Georgia.
Mr. Thomas went on to say:
"[i]n my office, I've always allowed my staff to work remotely. We use the Grasshopper app to call clients from our cellphones and Slack to stay in touch, so we were able to hit the ground running—clients don't notice anything different. I've done consultations via FaceTime, Skype, and phone, and just signed up a new client today. We're mostly business as usual."
Erin Dominguez, a Family Law Attorney based in Marin County, California said:
"Marin courts are closed until April 7th except for emergency matters, including DVROs (Domestic Violence Restraining Orders). The courts are still issuing tentative rulings for scheduled Request for Order hearings, and some of the tentative rulings provide substantive rulings with a later hearing date, if there is a request for oral argument (anytime from April 8th to July). Others simply continue the matter to a new date. The court may re-open in April as planned, but require all appearances via court call."
"Given I work remotely the majority of the time anyway, much of my day-to-day has not changed. However, I am not meeting with clients in person and either having phone calls or video calls instead. Our office is closed, and paralegals are working from home as well."
According to Lisa Freitas, a Family Law Attorney and Mediator in San Francisco:
"San Francisco courts are closed. I have been offering video mediations, which have been working well. We don't typically offer video mediation sessions in our practice, but it might now be a service we add. I think it has been important and meaningful to our clients that their mediators are available during this time. It's very stressful to go through a divorce in any climate, but during this time, it has been even more stressful, as their assets are losing value."
"People feel better signing their Martial Settlement Agreements to have a valid agreement in place, even if they can't be "legally divorced" right away. Our mobile notary has been available and staying in business during this time."
If you have questions about a divorce, child custody, or support issue, reach out to a local family law attorney for advice.