01 Jun What does a soft reopening for the courts really mean?
Kentucky courts opened on June 1, 2020, for civil and criminal matters, as ordered by the Supreme Court. You can read the full order here. That same order outlines some of the safeguards that are mandated by the Court. These include conducting all hearings remotely, unless there is a specific case where in-person appearances are necessary.
With that being said, the real question is, “What will Court be like during this soft opening?” While no one knows for sure, here are some of our predictions of likely outcomes:
1. Motion Hours will not be the same. Typically, each Jefferson Family Court judge will address 20 to 50 motions per week. During this period, the judge will triage the motions – granting some, denying others, and setting some for a specific time to take evidence on factual matters. In the past, this has been a busy time of the week, with courtrooms crowded with lawyers, courtroom staff, and parties. This will be no more. Already, some judges are conducting a “virtual” motion hour, with lawyers appearing in a Zoom or Skype courtroom arguing the matter that would have been heard in “open court.” Virtual motion hours will continue well into the future.
2. While the courtrooms will be largely empty, the dockets themselves are likely to be crowded. Families have continued to have disputes during the pandemic shutdown. Many solutions to problems have been put on hold. During the soft opening, these matters will now come to court. The motion hour dockets will be long, and delays will be inevitable. For families, the waiting periods have always seemed too long; in virtual courtrooms, the waiting periods are likely to be 2 to 4 times as long. If a judge could permit a one-hour hearing in 60 days during 2019, the parties can expect to wait 4 to 6 months for the same amount of face time with the judge.
3. There will be a push toward mediation. In Jefferson County, family court judges have routinely ordered the parties to participate in mediation prior to coming to court. The primary reason is that meditation works. Approximately 80 to 85 percent of mediated cases reach a complete resolution (despite the fact that very few clients believe in advance that mediation will help their cases). With the backlog, judges will be even more inclined to send cases to mediation. The good news is that many mediators are skilled in Zoom software processes. Each party can meet in a private Zoom “room” with his/her counsel, and the mediator then goes back and forth between the private sessions to broker a deal. Any agreements can be drafted and signed while each party is in his/her own home or office.
4. Remote hearings will be challenging. As this is a new process for a field that has been slow to implement change, there have already been difficulties with it. Judges and lawyers are used to the admission of evidence during the hearing, subject to objections, and with live witnesses reviewing documents during the process. With lawyers, judges, and witnesses in remote locations, the preparation of exhibits will need to be done well in advance so that all parties are reviewing the same document. In Jefferson County, the judges are implementing their own policies about how to handle things, with changes coming weekly. It is impossible for lawyers to predict the process that will be used in any particular courtroom right now.
5. Admission to the courthouse itself will be different. Pursuant to the KY Supreme Court Order, access to the courthouse is limited, and access to courtrooms is even more limited. Even if a party is able to come into the building, there are logistical problems with getting to the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors that hold the family court. The Judicial Center is built to move thousands of bodies in and out of the facilities each day. However, in the new Covid era, with space on elevators limited to 2 people, it is impossible for the same numbers of people to get to the entrance of each courtroom.
6. Documents will be filed electronically in the same manner as before. One thing that has NOT changed is the ability to e-file documents with the Court. Kentucky courts switched to e-filing about 4 years ago. Therefore, most lawyers can file any document from anywhere at any time. E-filing in Kentucky courts is available 24/7, 365 days a year. While the process for motions, hearings and trials has changed, the process to start a divorce, custody matter, or adoption is exactly the same.
If you feel confused or intimidated by the new processes, please don’t hesitate to call us. As always, we are here for you.