On May 20, 2020, the Prince George’s County Bar Association Family Law Committee hosted The Practice of Family Law During and After COVID-19: Changes in Practice, Policy and Procedure. The webinar, moderated by section co-chairs Alphonso Hearns and Rhonda A. Wood, featured general updates on courthouse operations from Circuit Court Administrative Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams, and a question and answer session with Family Division Coordinating Judge Daneeka V. Cotton.
General Operations. Judge Adams reported that the Court is working with the County Health Officer to help ensure a safe reopening, and that the safety of staff, the public and attorneys will be the overriding priority going forward. As the County continues to experience a surge in new coronavirus cases, the reopening will come in carefully planned phases, informed by the policies of the County Executive and the Health Department, as modified from time to time.
The Court is currently operating in phase one, which requires all who can work remotely to do so. Those who cannot have been placed on administrative leave. A skeletal staff is on site to handle emergency filings coming into court through the drop box, and to assist judges and magistrates who themselves are limited to handling only those emergencies.
Phase two will commence with the opening of courthouse doors to the staff. In accordance with Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera’s administrative orders, the presumptive date for this is June 8. Judge Adams noted, however, that if county stay at home orders remain in effect on June 8, the doors are unlikely to open on that date. When they do reopen, only staff will be permitted into the building during phase two so that they can learn the social distancing protocols and address the unopened mail and backlog of unprocessed court filings. There will be little public access to the courthouse during phase two, and no trials will be conducted. Hearings on emergency matters may be scheduled during this period, but are expected to be heard remotely whenever possible. Parties who believe that they have an emergency that needs prompt attention should mark their envelopes as such when they file their papers through the drop box. The Court will continue to use the drop box for some time, as there will be no public access to the Clerk’s office until late in phase two or into phase three.
Phase three of the reopening, which will probably not go into effect until late June, still will not be “business as usual.” Hearings on non-emergency matters will be scheduled and the public will be gradually granted access to the courthouse during phase three. Steps will be taken to limit the number of people in the building at any given time, to include a limitation on the number of people (one) who can accompany those who have business at the courthouse. Docket sizes will be reduced, and hearing times will be staggered (9:00 AM, 11:15 AM, 1:30 PM, and 3:00 PM).
Screening/Social Distancing. When the doors reopen, all seeking entry will be subject to a non-contact temperature scan, and will be turned away if their temperature is above the threshold set by public health officials. Those who are turned away will have access to an email kiosk so they can obtain further instructions from the Court. Those who are admitted will be required to wear facemasks at all times, except for witnesses when they are testifying. Witness boxes will be outfitted with shields. Signage and floor markings are being installed to promote social distancing, stairways and doors will be made one-way only, and barriers will be installed to protect staff at counters and in the courtrooms. Some of the smaller courtrooms will go unused or be repurposed, and courtrooms that are open will have limited gallery seating and extra space between counsel tables. As no jury trials are expected before the Fall, the Court is considering using the jury assembly room as a waiting area for family law cases. Judge Adams added that the absence of jurors will allow the Court to assign more judges to family matters to help work through the backlog.
Judge Cotton then opened the floor for questions pertaining specifically to family law.
Scheduling. Judge Cotton advised that the Court has already begun to hear uncontested divorce and custody matters remotely, and that magistrates are hearing cases daily. The judge said that anyone with an uncontested matter in which everyone agrees to proceed remotely should contact the Court (email@example.com), and it can likely be scheduled before mid-June. Scheduling conferences are also expected to begin in mid-June. Litigants who have pending motions that can be decided without a hearing can also let the Court know (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that the files can be pulled and sent to a judge for a ruling.
There will be no general extension of time limits set by existing scheduling orders, but requests for extensions will be liberally granted. Trial dates, on the other hand, will likely be continued unless the parties notify the Court that they are ready to proceed. When trials are scheduled, those that were interrupted by the March closing will be given priority. Judge Cotton suggested that parties in that position bring it to the Court’s attention to facilitate the rescheduling process.
Child Access Cases. The Court is expecting a flood of access cases, some of which have already been heard by the Court as emergencies. Requests for emergency relief that were not granted will be fast-tracked when the Court begins hearing contested cases.
Protective Orders. Cases are already being transferred from the district court. The Court has set aside dates for these to be heard as emergencies at the circuit court during phase two.
Parenting Classes. Judge Cotton announced that preparations are underway to have parenting classes conducted on-line to facilitate compliance with Court orders.
Weekend or Night Court. When asked, Judge Adams said that there is no truth to the rumor that the Court is considering conducting night or weekend sessions, adding that “we are already working nights and weekends.”
According to PGCBA President Manuel Geraldo this was the first in a series of programs to address matters of interest to the Bar as it continues to adjust to the impact of the pandemic.