Family Court – Update to Court Access
Last week I discussed access to the Bucks County Family Court to address such matters as spousal and child support, child custody and Protection from Abuse matters. At that time the President Judge had issued Orders that declared a judicial emergency in Bucks County and closed the courts to the public, with the exception of emergency matters, through May 15, 2020. The President Judge had also just issued an April 8, 2020 Order that specifically addressed Family Court. This week I will review some of the key terms of that April 8th Order.
Participation by Remote Means
The court has always had the capability to allow individuals to participate in court proceedings by telephone or video. Generally a party, for their convenience, requests such participation and that request is subject to the court’s approval. During this judicial emergency , when parties are not permitted to attend court proceedings (with limited exceptions), the court has been identifying matters that can be addressed with the parties participating remotely (telephone or video). That includes custody matters before the Family Master and support matters before Domestic Relations. The April 8th Order states that when proceedings are conducted by telephone or alternative means, the Judge, Family Master or Domestic Relations Officer should attempt to obtain the permission of the parties, in writing when possible, and that a party’s refusal to consent should be considered by the presiding Judge, Master or Officer who may elect to proceed regardless.
During this judicial emergency we have been involved in several custody matters that were conducted with attorneys and parties participating remotely, and in most of those cases issues were resolved that would have otherwise gone unaddressed until months later.
The court delineates four areas of “essential operations” and discusses each in detail.
The first is Protection from Abuse proceedings. The court is hearing emergency (ex parte) petitions and the presenting party is permitted to attend in person but is cautioned against bringing extraneous people to the proceeding. During any such proceedings, social distancing protocols are implemented and litigants will remain in the hallway outside of the courtroom until such time that their matter is called before the court. For matters already scheduled (i.e. scheduled before the judicial emergency to take place during the court closure), agreements may be submitted by the attorneys to the court for consideration. Otherwise, hearings for any such matters are continued and will be rescheduled for after the courts re-open for regular business.
The second area of essential operations addressed in the Order is support proceedings. Domestic Relations is continuing to operate to process filings and enforce existing Support Orders, and all parties subject to Support Orders are directed to comply. Regarding new filings, Domestic Relations is conducting Support Conferences by telephone with the parties submitting necessary documentation electronically in advance of the conference. With the exception of emergency matters (which in our experience seem to be rare), all hearings will be continued (if already scheduled to take place during the court closure) and initially scheduled for hearing dates to occur when the courts re-open for regular business. Contempt proceedings will take scheduled as needed and, in extreme cases, parties may be required to attend.
The third area is custody. New filings are being considered for Custody Conferences to be held by telephone with the parties submitting any necessary documentation 48 hours in advance. In our experience, the Family Master has been regularly scheduling Custody Conferences to address new filings and, as previously stated, that has resulted in progress being made in some of these matters.
The fourth and final area of essential operations addressed by the April 8th Order is general emergency matters. This typically involves support, custody or property matters that the Court determines require emergency attention. These matters are forwarded to a Judge for consideration as to how to proceed and, during the judicial emergency, the assigned Judge has full discretion on what, if any, action will take place to address the alleged emergency issue.
The April 8th Order generally addresses all matters that are not considered essential operations. For the most part, this involves issues that are not deemed to require emergency attention. However, as the judicial emergency lasts longer, we have seen the court start to consider how to address more non-emergency matters so as to help alleviate the expected flood of litigation that will follow the courts opening. The Order talks about the discretion of Judges to use telephone conferences during the judicial emergency to address pending matters with counsel, and the procedures to reschedule matters for after the courts opening. The Order provides for a procedure in which unrepresented parties can take place in an on-the-record conference with the use of a court reporter.
Existing Custody Orders
Our firm has received several questions from clients regarding following the terms of existing Custody Orders, and it is clear that this has been a wide-spread issue as the April 8th Order specifically addresses how that should occur. The general guidance provided by the Court is that all Custody Orders should continue to be followed unless specifically modified by agreement or further court order. The Order goes on to discuss the following:
- The need to follow CDC guidelines regarding cleanliness, social distancing, and refraining from subjecting the child to public places
- Parents notifying the other that a parent or household member is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms
- The suspension of custody for any parent diagnosed with COVID-19, along with alternative contact procedures
- Childcare procedures for any parent who continues to work for a life-sustaining business
- Emergency filing procedures for parents who have had their custodial rights suspended pursuant to this Order
Finally, the Order states that parties who do not act in accordance with the stated terms could be subjected to contempt proceedings, and that the penalties may include fines, imprisonment or loss of custodial time.
Attorneys are happy to have this additional guidance from the Bucks County President Judge regarding the operation of Family Court during the judicial emergency. Parties to Family Court proceedings would be wise to familiarize themselves with the terms of the April 8th Order by either discussing the Order with their respective attorney or by reviewing the Order themselves. A copy of the Order can be found here on the Bucks County Bar Association website.
This article is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. Actual legal advice can only be provided after consultation by an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.