What Happens to a Civil Law Case During a Pandemic?
Going through a civil legal matter like a divorce, contract dispute, or real estate issue can be stressful enough during normal times. But having your case pending during a pandemic can cause even more anxiety.
You may wonder if the case will have to be put on hold (like so much else in your life) or if there is any recourse available in the case of an emergency.
The good news is that many justice departments throughout the country are able to continue operating — at least partially — during a pandemic, thanks to help from technology. However, this isn't to say that there won't be delays or other ways in which your civil legal matter is affected during a public health emergency.
Court Decisions to Open or Close During COVID-19
During the COVID-19 outbreak when most of America was ordered to stay at home, some courthouses across the country shuttered their doors. They did their best to reschedule trials and move hearings to virtual conferences or phone calls.
Other courthouses remained open and carried on with business as usual. Some jurisdictions sent part of their court staff and judges to work from home while having others keep working in-person. At least up until the time this article was published, jurisdictions were permitted to create their own policies for how to proceed.
The U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to postpone oral arguments. However, this wasn't the first time the nation's highest court had to take such drastic measures in the interest of public health. The Supreme Court also postponed oral arguments in 1918 as a result of the Spanish flu and had an abbreviated calendar in 1793 and 1798 due to yellow fever outbreaks.
At a state level, courts varied in the services they continued to provide. All New York courts were ordered to postpone all non-essential court functions and special courts were established to hear certain essential matters.
What You Can Do
Communicating with your attorney is the most important thing to do when your civil case is affected by a pandemic. These days, attorneys should be well-versed in meeting with clients remotely, and they should be receiving direct information from the court on how their cases will be impacted.
Your attorney will likely be able to continue working on many aspects of your case even if the court is temporarily shut down (provided that your attorney stays healthy and able). In fact, a delay may even give your attorney more time to build a better case on your behalf, or more opportunity to work out a mutually-agreeable settlement between you and the other party.
If you need emergency help from the court while the court is closed, it will likely be available. Most courthouses are offering limited services to people who are in need of emergency court intervention, such as protective orders, support orders, housing code violations, landlord lockouts, and other situations that threaten health, safety, and liberty.
After the Pandemic Ends
Unfortunately, court closures due to pandemics, natural disasters, and other emergencies are likely to result in court dockets getting backlogged, and in some areas, significantly backlogged. Like with other industries, it often takes a while to rebuild and get back to normal after a pandemic leads to a shutdown.
However, as suggested above, delays sometimes give attorneys the time they need to reach a more favorable outcome for their clients, so there could be a silver lining.