As a general rule, courts are not quick to react to widespread issues of public concern. This has both pros and cons. On one hand, it is a cornerstone of the American legal system for courts to remain independent, open, and available to those in need, and to not rush hastily to decisions that may negatively affect citizens. On the other hand, there is a serious public health concern relating to the spread of COVID-19, and the court must ensure it is available to protect citizens in the future.
On March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania enacted a General Statewide Judicial Emergency pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Judicial Administration 1952(A), declaring a statewide emergency until April 14, 2020 (http://www.pacourts.us/assets/files/page-1305/file-8634.pdf). According to the Supreme Court, the purpose of this emergency declaration – and corresponding court closures – was to “safeguard the health and safety of court personnel, court users, and members of the public due to the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 virus.” Although the specifics and enforcement of the declaration are still grey, the general idea is that there are two categories of court activities: essential and non-essential. Courts shall remain open to service essential court functions, but are currently closed to non-essential functions.
What are Pennsylvania Courts' Essential Functions?
Essential functions include, but are not limited to, temporary protection from abuse hearings, emergency petitions for child custody, juvenile emergency shelter and detention hearings, and pleadings or motions relating to public health concerns and involving immediate and irreparable harm. The entire list of essential functions can be found at the following link: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/files/page-1305/file-8638.pdf. It is important to keep in mind that although your particular issue may not be deemed “essential” and the Court may not be able to immediately assist you, there are numerous ways to protect the rights of yourself and your children during this period of uncertainty. Please read my blog regarding steps you can take regarding child custody during the COVID-19 pandemic here.
What are Pennsylvania Courts' Non-Essential Functions?
Non-essential functions make up a significant amount of cases the Court hears on a daily basis. They include special relief hearings, discovery hearings, custody hearings, support hearings, and equitable distribution hearings, just to name a few. Unfortunately, many individuals have cases before the Court that are deemed non-essential. Thankfully, Courts across the Commonwealth understand this predicament and are taking steps to help alleviate concerns.
How Bucks County Courts are Addressing Non-Essential Functions
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the Court is attempting to address non-essential functions by allowing the process to begin for certain types of cases. For example, the Court is still accepting filings for child support, spousal support, alimony pendente lite, and alimony. Further, the Court is still scheduling support conferences for these cases and is conducting them by telephone to ensure individuals are not denied basic support obligations.
Child Custody Cases in Bucks County
Also in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the Court is still accepting filings for child custody. It is currently unknown when the Court will begin to hold non-emergency custody hearings; however, the Court is currently conducting telephonic custody conferences that will result in a report being written by a Court appointed Masters. These measures will ideally allow for individuals to bring their claims to Court, even during the next few weeks while only essential court functions are prioritized. In the meantime, the Court has recommended that both Mothers and Fathers agree to adhere to CDC recommended protocols for COVID-19. This includes washing your hands before touching your child, cleaning surfaces with Lysol or other appropriate disinfectant, and practicing social distancing. Additionally, parents should practice social isolation in their homes and avoid taking their children out to public places. The Court suggests these precautionary steps be followed until advised that it is safe to revert back to normal practices.
If you have a case before the Court – or are considering filing a family law related action – and are unsure whether it is deemed essential or non-essential, please contact our office. We are located in both Doylestown and Newtown-Yardley, Pennsylvania. Please call us at (215) 968-1800 or contact us online. We offer evening and weekend appointments for your convenience, as well as telephone consultations if you live far away from our office. We also communicate with our clients via e-mail and respond immediately to all of your questions, needs, and concerns.
We look forward to hearing from you and helping you. Be safe and healthy.