The current state of affairs in California equates to a novel social experiment wherein people now engage in “social distancing” and “social isolation” in order to reduce the speed and spread of COVID-19. Not just a brand-new term in English vernacular, social distancing and isolation have now caused professionals to develop and carve out creative strategies to ensure that business for their clients can proceed as close to normal as possible.
For family law lawyers, this means determining how to virtually work with our clients, opposing parties, opposing counsel, mediators, experts and the courts to ensure that (a) clients and their families are protected; and (b) the matter keeps moving forward so that when this crisis stabilizes, our client will not be prejudiced due to the delay in access to the court system.
As family law lawyers practicing in Southern California, judges from various counties including but not limited to Los Angeles and Ventura recently released news releases regarding COVID-19 that state that the courts are “scaling down operations” to achieve social distancing. Broken down, this means that family law courts are closed except for certain emergency matters for a period of time.
So, how is a person considering a family law proceeding, or in an existing family law proceeding going to deal with this new and hopefully temporary reality? Here are some ideas to keep things moving forward:
- Considering Preparing that Motion Now. The courts have told us they are closed until April 16 in Los Angeles County. Thus, if you are considering filing that motion to modify support or custody in a few weeks or next month, prepare it now so when the court re-opens, your matter gets on the calendar as soon as possible.
- Reconsider Mediation: As social distancing and isolation leads to sweeping changes in our court system, mediation as an alternative form to resolve a family law proceeding begins to look even more appealing. Retired family law judges and lawyers continue to be available for mediation though now done via video conference. This is working wonderfully and enables a mediation or settlement conference to occur in a safe and efficient manner.
- Start Thinking About Small Goals. With the courts now inaccessible unless the issue is an emergency, it may be best to start narrowing the scope of issues in contention with your family law lawyer to convey such information to your spouse. Maybe you and your spouse are only apart $35,000 in the valuation of the asset? What if you stipulated to a compromised amount and turned that agreement into a court order thereby decreasing the amount of issues in the divorce? By considering each singular issue in your case and working to resolve those issues, instead of “the case” as a whole, you may see that you can start closing the gaps to resolution.
- Request Accommodations. Once the courts re-open, if you are personally affected by COVID-19, let your lawyer know. There are court rules that allow a party to litigation to seek accommodations at court if they have a disability that limits at least one major life activity such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking or breathing, caring for oneself or doing a manual task. If the request is granted by the court, the court may, for example, adjust schedules (as long as legal deadlines are not missed) or reassign a hearing to an accessible site. It’s important to know you have options if you are affected by COVID-19.
- Electronic Signatures. If you are going to electronically sign stipulations and other documents with the intention of the document becoming a court order once submitted to the court, make sure your agreement contains language that states electronic or facsimile signatures will be deemed as an original to ensure that (a) there is no issue with the court and (b) limit the possibility of that the court order being set aside in the future.
- Keep it Electronic. One of the more tedious tasks in family law proceedings is the preparation of the declaration of disclosure. Frequently, the completion of this task requires in-person meetings between the lawyer and client to discuss the requirements and the volleying of documents, which is in opposition to social distancing and isolation. Schedule calls with your lawyer that can act like a meeting; use Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. Download and email all documents to your lawyer; do not mail or drop off the documents.
This may be an uncertain time for many; however, it is certain that the family law will not slow down.