The courts are closed because of COVID-19. How does this affect my family court case?

In a manner of a few short weeks our daily lives have been disrupted in the smallest and largest ways from being laid off from work to not eating in a favorite restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday to grocery shopping in a grocery store with nearly empty shelves. None of us know how long “shelter in place” is going to last. For individuals who are going to court because of a divorce or custody case or to establish child support there is now a significant disruption delaying their case – Minnesota judges cannot address nearly all family court cases any time soon.

On March 20, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an Order declaring a peacetime emergency prohibiting judges from having court hearings for nearly all types of court cases. The Order explains how the appellate courts must address cases that are on appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court and Minnesota Court of Appeals as well as certain criminal cases and Trials heard within Minnesota’s 87 counties. The Order also states in part:

Effective as of March 23, 2020, hearings shall be held in the courtroom on an emergency basis in the following case types: housing/eviction matters when there is a showing of individual or public health or safety at risk; civil commitment; emergency change-of-custody requests; guardianships; and orders for protection (OFP).

(A)ll other proceedings in all other case types shall be held by ITV or any other remote technology that permits the parties and attorneys to appear without being in the courtroom, or by review of the parties’ submissions without oral argument, to the extent feasible, practicable, and in the interests of justice.

This new Order from the Minnesota Supreme Court is in effect until April 22, 2020.

What does this all mean to people who have a divorce, custody, parenting time or child support case that is currently open in court? Unless there is an emergency change-of-custody Motion filed with the court, any scheduled court hearings are being postponed for an indefinite period of time. Judges are looking at different types of technology to see how court hearings can take place via ITV and the internet, but nothing is set in place to immediately use so judges can hear and address divorces, child support, non-emergency custody and parenting time cases. Family court is at a near standstill.

Yet, this standstill presents an opportunity for parents and parties to try to resolve cases outside of court. Zoom conferencing is now being used by local family law attorneys and mediators to try to settle cases. This technology allows parties and their attorneys, who are in separate locations or even their homes, to work toward a settlement because the only other option is waiting an unknown number of months before they see the inside of a courtroom. This is going to be a greater tool to use the longer the court system is essentially closed to the majority of Minnesotans.

The Minnesota Supreme Court could issue more Orders extending the peacetime emergency keeping family court cases further in limbo. Now is the time for parents and parties to combine the embracement of technology plus unknown court delays to reach settlements to avoid the stress and concern of waiting for courtroom doors to once again open.

Jessica Sterle

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