What Will Divorce And Family Court Be Like After Covid-19

The Long Island Suffolk Supreme and Family Courts (Nassau & Suffolk) are partially open, but not yet having litigants attending in person on a non-emergency basis of any kind. While there have been judges and clerks assigned everyday to deal with emergency and essential matters, only recently has permission to begin to handle "non-essential" cases been granted. After a period in which access was extremely limited to both attorneys and the public, judges began holding conferences "virtually" whether by Skype or telephone with the attorneys and sometimes the parties so that matters could be conferenced and even settled. It appears that the Long Island Courts will be re-opening soon, but what will that mean for a contested divorce or Family Court litigant?

Since official rules and guidelines have not yet been released, the following thoughts are my own and are not official policy statements but rather based on the trends that I am beginning to see after reading numerous announcements from the Chief Judge of the State of New York and local Administrative Judges, Bar Leaders, the New York Law Journal and conversations with colleagues.

I believe that physical access to the buildings will still continue to be restricted, although open. It will take more time to enter the building and be screened for signs of illness. I believe that the waiting areas will not be large enough to maintain social distancing and therefore the scheduling of cases will become critically important to minimize the normal overcrowding. Instead of cases in the courts being scheduled for 9:30 AM, there will be appointments given throughout the day. If in person appearances are necessary it may be harder for parents/clients to attend due to their children's school schedules whether distance learning or in school. It will not be easy for the court system to know how much time to allocate for each case as there are alway additional issues that pop-up. It may be difficult to reach attorneys that have high volume practices as they may be waiting to be heard on multiple cases before different judges. Attorneys instead of finishing all of their cases in the morning may need to be in court for part of the morning and the afternoon, thus making it more difficult to do in office work and also schedule client appointments.

There may be a preference, at least initially, to hold virtual conferences which reduces the number of people in the building. Social distancing will be important not just for the people in the waiting areas but also for court staff, court officers, and any other persons in the courtroom. Trial dates will be extended significantly as there is a backlog of cases that were previously scheduled and adjourned. Even where dates were previously given out for July, it is still is a mystery as to whether and how those cases will proceed for many reasons. There are scheduling issues, there are social distance issues when documents are handled by witnesses, attorneys and court personnel, there are seating issues and so the list can go on and on. Are these problems solvable absolutely, but will it take more time definitely.

So at this point we all move forward one day at a time to try and advance the desire to bring justice and finality to families that face not only divorce/separation stress but financial stress and uncertainty for the future.