Most people know by now that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused court delays at an alarming rate throughout 2020 and into 2021. Despite these ongoing issues in our country’s court system, there are actions couples can take and things divorcees should know when experiencing delays in their cases.
The truth of the matter is, the average length of time from the start of a divorce case to its resolution – regardless of jurisdiction – has increased considerably since the pandemic first struck the U.S. in March 2020.
One of the most important things couples should have in their back pocket while working with their divorce attorney is having a realistic understanding of why COVID-related delays are sure to impact their case no matter what.
A key factor that continues to cause delays is that many courts are still entirely closed due to state or county guidelines and only have virtual hearings available. Courts that have in-person hearings may also be limiting how many people can be in the courthouse at any given time, which naturally lengthens hearing dockets and the time allowed for couples to be heard.
The most powerful tool overall is patience. What may have taken two to four months before the pandemic now may take six to eight. Given this, life’s uncertainty in a pandemic has undoubtedly heightened the stress involved in family law cases. Increased anxiety and depression in clients, coupled with financial woes from an uncertain economy, often means a powder keg waiting to explode.
So, how should couples navigate these uncharted and choppy waters to get their case to the end, be it trial or resolution?
How to Deal With Court Delays During COVID-19
First, it is paramount for couples to know that once courts open completely, criminal cases that require quick hearings constitutionally will receive “first dibs” on trial openings. Then the courts will likely start tackling the backlog of civil jury trials. Family law cases that will likely receive precedence next are those involving emergency issues or other time-sensitive matters.
Couples contemplating divorce should also seriously consider participating in a Zoom trial to speed up their case. While this may not be the ideal situation for many people, it can result in a quicker resolution in many instances.
Additionally, divorcees should make sure to have conversations with their attorneys about their case, as each is unique and has many moving pieces. A family law attorney will clearly and concisely explain the options for court while fighting for the best-case scenario.
These inevitable delays have subsequently led to those going through divorce softening previously entrenched positions because of the less-than-ideal nature of the six-to-eight-month wait period for an in-person hearing. Now, couples must balance their desire to move on with their life with their desire to get their case heard by a judge.
Consider Your Options
One solution to the delay roadblock is for the attorney to consider a socially distanced settlement meeting or a Zoom settlement meeting attempt. Another way to take action in dealing with delays in a divorce case is using a mediator to help guide the couple through some of these decisions. Mediators have seen an increase in their business while the pandemic has been raging in an attempt to persuade clients to discuss resolutions that they are amenable to, rather than waiting to get in front of a judge to rule.
Some couples may also consider outsourcing their case to an arbitrator or another professional expert. This approach may be a quicker way to get a hearing with someone in a quasi-judicial capacity if mediation or settlement isn’t an option.
Regardless of how contentious the divorce, there are likely some issues in a couple’s case that are resolvable. At the very least, there is most likely something the lawyer and opposing counsel could reach an agreement on.
If any of these other resolutions fall short, then it’s a wise use of a couple’s legal funds to narrow the number of issues the court must rule on when the hearing finally does happen.
When the doors do swing open and courts are no longer seeing delays, it will be easier to get a half-day hearing than a two-day trial where every issue is contested.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique event for everyone, including lawyers and the courts, with continued impacts on the modern world. Attorneys may not have all the answers, but they can provide couples with options on how to best proceed. The ongoing uncertainty requires couples, along with their respective counsel, to work with a little bit of creativity and a lot of understanding to help address the issues of their case and get to a resolution as quickly as the courts and the pandemic restrictions will allow.
Kristin Zurek is a Litigation Partner at Cordell & Cordell and is licensed in Missouri. She helps clients navigate the complex legal system and restructure their families while advocating for her client’s best interests. Zurek earned her Juris Doctor from Saint Louis University School of Law and in 2007 graduated from the American Bar Association Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute. www.cordellcordell.com