Vicinage 15 – More well-known to the general public as Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem County Courthouses is adopting a new way of conducting proceedings. Read on below to learn more about the impact of the current public health emergency on family court matters.
In the midst of the constantly evolving COVID-19 pandemic, we are all swept up in a constantly changing tide as new information, new statistics, new guidelines and restrictions unfold. However, for attorneys and the Courts it is “business not quite as usual”.
In the day and age of constant technology, it is no surprise that we at Adinolfi, Lieberman, Burick, Falkenstein, Roberto & Molotsky, P.A., (as are most attorneys) are able to be in near constant communication with clients via telephone, email, text, Skype, FaceTime and the like whether from our physical offices, the Courthouse or remotely from home or even abroad. Being continually accessible is part of the job in family court.
The Court system, however, is not quite the same. Generally, Family Part of the New Jersey Superior Court system does not yet participate in e-Courts (though the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) docket of abuse and neglect cases does) the way the other Divisions do. For instance, the Appellate Division is virtually exclusively based on e-filings and the Civil and Criminal Divisions also use e-Courts.
For Family Part, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the “business as usual” model of paper filings (whether Complaints, Answers, Motions, Orders to Show Cause) being physically delivered to the Court clerk’s office, walk-in in-person Domestic Violence filings being taken during the Court’s normal business day, walk-in FD custody and parenting time applications and the like. However, as with all challenges, modification is borne of necessity and social distancing has required we adapt. Here’s a snapshot of how Vicinage XV (Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem counties) are adjusting:
- Motion Hearings: Normally, Motion Hearings are heard on Fridays when attorneys and litigants by the dozens descend on the Courthouse for their chance for in-person, face to face oral argument with the Court. Now, however, the Courts have set up virtual courtrooms and moved the judges to remote access so that they can continue to hear motions by utilizing Zoom, a video conferencing platform that allows everyone to participate and see and hear everyone else from a safe distance without compromising the ability to “read the room” so to speak. If you do not have access to Zoom, that is ok. The Court will also provide for telephonic participation.
- Filings: Most of us are used to preparing our submissions (Complaints, Motions, etc.) and either mailing them or, more often than not, having them hand-delivered to the Clerk’s office for processing and filing. They can still be mailed in, but hand-deliveries are not possible under the current circumstances. Vicinage XV is also setting up an electronic mail box into which FM (divorce and post-divorce applications) filings can be emailed or “dropped” so that they are received by the Court while maintaining social distancing. FD applications (not divorce related cases, typically custody, parenting time and support between unmarried or not divorcing parties) must be mailed in; there is no ability to email or “drop” these submissions due to the way they are processed, but they will be accepted and processed if received through the mail.
- MESP: For those of you going through a divorce, you have likely heard that Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (MESP) is an important date in your case because it is the day you go to the Courthouse, your attorneys (or you if you are not represented) meet with a Panel of experienced matrimonial attorneys not related to your case who consider your submissions and make a neutral recommendation on how to resolve your case without a trial. For a lot of cases, MESP is the pivotal moment when the landscape of the case can change and settlement looks possible after all. For right now, the New Jersey Supreme Court has suspended MESPs through April 10, 2020, but they will resume—either by video (such as Zoom addressed above) or telephonically—as of April 13th.
- Trials: For now, Trials look unlikely. As I tell clients, trials are living, breathing things and every question, every answer, every eye roll, every shrug of the shoulders, every pause, the tone of voice, etc. all can change instantly impact how the trial unfolds and the next steps taken. Given the supreme importance placed upon the Courts to often times access credibility., which hinges upon the Trial Courts ability to access body language, verbal cues, nonverbal cues and the like, that is not likely effectively done outside of a live courtroom process. For now, we will have to see how the trial process unfolds.
- Domestic Violence Actions: Last but certainly not least, domestic violence is a very real, every day issue that does not stop because of a pandemic. Although the Court’s are closed to the public at the moment, there is still protection for victims who need immediate relief. A victim of domestic violence can go to any police department and apply for a Temporary Restraining Order at any time of day or night. Judges have been handling middle of the night TRO matters via telephone for years and certainly have the ability to continue to do so any time of day with COVID 19. If you need protection, get it. How the process unfolds after that will be different than the usual order to appear in person in Court in less than 10 days from the date of the Order, but that is ok. Together we will figure it out.
This is an unprecedented time for all of us. We are all in this together. Rest assured that while physically going to the Courthouse may not be presently possible, business is continuing in a “not so usual” basis for all family-related matters and we continue to be here to help you navigate the new reality.
Julie Burick, Esq. is a shareholder and partner at Adinolfi, Lieberman, Burick, Falkenstein, Roberto & Molotsky, PA. She is the former Gloucester County Bar President and still actively participates in this important organization. Julie focuses her practice on all aspects of divorce and family law in particular cases involving domestic violence and appeals to the New Jersey Superior Court.
 This is not a complete list, but identifies the highlights.