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Stuck in the Pandemic Moment

Stuck in the Pandemic Moment

Being involved in a divorce or custody dispute right now can feel like you are caught in a time loop, and while Groundhog Day was a funny movie, living it in real time is no laughing matter. Since March 14, 2020, the judicial system in Georgia has been operating under an Emergency Order permitting the suspension of all non-essential judicial proceedings and temporarily suspending deadlines. Essential functions include:

  • Matters involving immediate liberty or safety concerns
  • Criminal search and arrest warrants, initial appearances, and bond reviews
  • Domestic abuse temporary protective orders and restraining orders
  • Juvenile delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters
  • Mental health commitment hearings

Courts have generally not been hearing family law cases unless they involve domestic abuse or some other emergency. Some courts have begun scheduling uncontested matters or non-evidentiary hearings via telephone or Zoom, but the practice is not consistent from circuit to circuit, and if either of the parties objects to such a proceeding, the courts will likely continue the case until such time as the courts reopen.

Issues that have been commonly arising during the pandemic include:

  • Failure to timely pay child support
  • Refusal to permit regular visitation
  • Violation of communication provisions
  • Depletion of the marital estate
  • Decision to file for divorce
  • Refusal to abide by other provisions of an agreement
  • Missing discovery deadlines
  • Missing response deadlines

Because most courts have not been hearing non-essential matters, filing a contempt action for failure to comply with a court order has not been as effective a tool as it once was. Moreover, filing a contempt action has not even been possible when the issue involves a missed deadline since all deadlines were suspended by the Emergency Order. Technically, there is no contempt if all deadlines are suspended. So, while it is frustrating that your ex has not yet submitted those bank statements you requested more than six months ago, the chances of you getting a court order to enforce the production are slim and none.

Does that mean you have no remedies, though? Not at all. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Document everything in writing. Even though you cannot necessarily file a motion with the court at this time, there will come a time when you will be permitted to file a contempt action or other motion, and you will want to have your evidence ready to go.
  2. Ask your lawyer to communicate with the opposing party’s lawyer. Your lawyer can try to reach a resolution on whatever dispute has arisen. Often times, attorneys are effective at reasoning with their clients and can mediate a resolution short of a court hearing, especially during these times when scheduling a date with the court is virtually impossible. Assuming both parties want a resolution, now is the time when negotiations can be highly effective.
  3. Schedule a virtual mediation. Many cases resolve short of a trial or hearing, so now would be a good time to schedule a virtual mediation. Virtual mediations typically occur through an online platform like Zoom, and the mediator can speak to the parties together or privately to discuss a resolution of all the issues in a case. Paul Johnson of Johnson Kraeuter now offers virtual mediation services.

There is also hope that you may be able to get back into court sometime in the foreseeable future. The Georgia Supreme Court (which recently extended the Emergency Order, for a second time, to June 12, 2020) issued an order on May 21, 2020 reinstating deadlines beginning May 28, 2020. What that means, is that “parties in pending cases will have the same amount of time to submit their filings as they had remaining at the time the March 14 emergency order went into effect.” Parties will be required to calculate the time and submit a Certificate of Timeliness with all filings. Additionally, it is anticipated that the Georgia Supreme Court will issue an additional order directing normal deadlines to be in effect for cases filed on or after May 28, 2020.

As court resumes business as usual, you can expect some changes to persist. For example, just because the court is scheduling cases does not mean that your case will necessarily have priority. Courts are managing severe backlogs, and there is still a question about whether it is possible to conduct jury trials safely. Witnesses with compromised immune systems may not be available to testify. Attorneys with legitimate health concerns may not be required to appear in court because of the elevated risk of illness. Additionally, you may be required to comply with certain orders designed to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. For example, in Chatham County, Chief Judge Freeseman recently issued an order mandating all individuals wear facemasks when in public areas of the courthouse until further notice.

If you have questions on the status of your case, contact your attorney to discuss your options. If you would like to file a new case or are otherwise in need of a consultation, the attorneys at Johnson Kraeuter are available to speak with you. For more information on how to effectively navigate a family law matter during a pandemic, please see our recent blog posts on Shared Parenting During a Pandemic and Divorcing During a Pandemic.