May 20, 2020
Family Court Update on COVID-19 Response
May 20, 2020
By Kris Cirby
On May 19, 2020, MCBA’s family law section held a webinar with all three Marin family court judges on the Court’s response to COVID-19. Judge Adams welcomed everyone and gave an overview of the Court’s current status. She let everyone know that all the judges and their families are well and that there have been no COVID-19 cases among court staff. She praised the court administrative and clerical staff for an excellent job complying with social distancing requirements on an ongoing basis.
Judge Adams reminded everyone that the status of the Court is constantly evolving, with the judges receiving new data and new instructions every day. So far, the Court has been conducting only ex parte and DVRO evidentiary hearings. If all goes as expected, the Court and clerk’s office will open on Monday June 1, 2020. However, when the Court reopens, court access will be extremely limited, with continued social distancing and other mandates for the safety of everyone. No members of the public will be coming to court, except in the very rare discretion of the Court.
The judges then responded to questions section members had submitted in advance.
Will the court reopen on June 1? What protocols are in place to safeguard at-risk clients and lawyers?
The Court is currently operating under Government Code section 68115, which gives the Court emergency authority for 30 days at a time. Presiding Judge Sweet has issued administrative orders implementing this authority. The most recent one, dated April 28, 2020, provides for emergency operations until the end of May. The court anticipates opening June 1st.
When the Court reopens, it will look very different. One courtroom will handle all family law cases and the Court will use technology to conduct its business remotely. It will primarily use Zoom (video) and VCourt (telephone). The Court asks that you familiarize yourself with Zoom technology before you need to appear. It has already been conducting DVRO hearings via Zoom and the morning after the webinar, released Remote Access Procedures, which outline the rules for appearing remotely, including the technological steps. Clerks will be contacting those who have matters on the calendar and providing the links to Zoom hearings. Please check www.marincourt.org for any updated orders and information.
What is being worked on or considered to improve access during closure now or in the future for non-emergency issues or hearings?
The Court is mindful of the access barriers imposed on litigants and attorneys with the court closure. The Court is operating with a skeletal crew at the courthouse to provide service.
It has already issued guidelines on how to file DVROs (pdf) and has continued to issue temporary restraining orders. A family law judge has been present at the courthouse every day to hear ex parte applications and review TROs. Court staff has been contacting participants to instruct them in appearing remotely.
- Bandwidth issues: The Court anticipates that bandwidth will impose limitations on its ability to conduct business, as all technology is shared with the County of Marin. The Court does not know exactly what the order and timing of cases will be as the family court has to share with other courts, including criminal courts, which have priority. The Court asks all of us to have patience as everyone moves forward.
- Legal Self-Help Center: Self-represented litigants should call 415-444-7130 to obtain additional assistance (no attorneys please).
- Family law custody and visitation guidelines: The Court’s expectations are that parties will follow these guidelines. The Court encourages parties to review them.
- Evidence at hearings: In addition to being submitted in advance to the Court and opposing counsel, all evidence will need to be displayed through Zoom, regardless of whether it is a video, photos, or documents. The judges emphasized that you must check your Zoom settings. In one recent hearing, Judge Adams was shown a text on a cell phone but the words were mirror imaged. As noted above, the Court has issued Remote Access Procedures.
- June Law and Motion will go forward: Gretchen Van Voorhies is back at work preparing files for Law & Motion hearings. Courtesy copies are welcome, especially while the Court is closed. Please email them to the clerks or the general family law email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Please do not assume that any originals placed in the dropbox will be delivered to the judges during the court closure.
If the court continued a hearing to a date you are not available, please contact the clerk for a new date. The judges do not yet know whether there will be a charge of $20 for a continuance.
- Evidentiary Hearings: These hearings will take place via Zoom. The court does not know when in-person hearings may resume. Longer hearings will need to be truncated because of bandwidth issues.
- DCSS calendar: The Court will be meeting with Commissioner Longaker and DCSS to discuss restarting the DCSS calendar. They are also updating the DCSS courtroom for videoconferencing. Please check the Court’s website for further updates.
- Custody: For custody cases in which children are supposed to fly, the Court will make such determinations on a case-by-case basis. Judge Adams pointed out that, “Dr. Fauci recommends not flying, so who am I to question Dr. Fauci?”
- Court reporters: Use the same process as usual.
- Tentative Rulings: The Court will issue them beginning with June calendars, with the same process as usual to be followed.
- Minors’ counsel: The Court made appointments for minors’ counsel before the shutdown. If you want the list, you may contact Ali Quam at the Legal Self-Help Center.
When will Bench Bar dates be available? Given the COVID orders limiting the number of individuals into the courthouse, could or should Bench Bar settlement conferences be conducted with panel present and all others video conferencing?
The Court wants to have Bench Bar settlement conferences back up and running. Judge Adams has reached out to the judges pro tem to discuss handling them remotely, possibly using outside Zoom conferencing. Three Bench Bar Settlement Conferences are scheduled for late June and the Court will have procedures in place by then. It is confident that many Bench Bar conferences will be able to proceed via Zoom or other technology.
How do we move our cases forward during closure? We have all provided our clients with the Court’s 4/28/20 order.
The Court recommended watching for further updates on the court website. It also encouraged everyone to talk to opposing counsel to try to resolve cases via telephone and Zoom. All Case Progress Conferences have been continued to a future date. Please check the court calendar for more information. RFO hearings can be set in July.
Are discovery deadlines extended under the current administrative orders?
No deadlines have been extended and the discovery referee program is still operating. The Court encourages settlement of these issues.
If the court closure is extended, can we get stipulations for private judges signed?
The Court has been signing stipulations for private judging and parent coordinators during the closure and will continue to do so.
Will Petitions for Dissolution of Marriage be accepted for filing before the end of June? How will the clerk's office handle all the filings that have not been submitted during SIP?
All filings submitted during the closure have been date-stamped as “received.” Presiding Judge Sweet has not decided as to when to have pleadings file-stamped. There is also a question as to whether to file those pleadings as of the date received or on the date filed. However, Judge Adams reminded everyone that the Court can authorize any document to be filed nunc pro tunc to avoid any injustice.
Will there be a backlog of judgments and filings? When will documents left for filing at the clerk’s office be processed?
Currently, the backlog is not significant, and not the “tsunami” the Court expected. Diane Kallet is also back, processing Judgments. The clerks have done a great job of organizing incoming documents but as set out in the previous answer, the Court has not yet determined when filing will occur. The Court again emphasized that the nunc pro tunc option is available.
Would the Court be willing to implement signed stipulations for video settlement conferences during the court closure and/or future court closures?
The Court is ready, willing and able to sign stipulations to promote settlement. Submit them via email. If one is already in the clerk’s office, please email the specific judge’s clerk and they will try to locate the stipulation to have it processed.
Will orders granting requests for child and spousal support be made retroactive to the date the RFO is served on the opposing party or only to the date the RFO is filed?
The Chief Justice has issued Emergency Rule 13 providing that trial courts may make orders retroactive to the date of service. You must re-serve after the RFO has been filed. Again, nunc pro tunc orders are available to prevent great injustice.
How does video conferencing differ from court call? Does video conferencing have the advantage in allowing parties to present and look at documents?
The Court emphasized that attorneys’ patience is appreciated. Again, the Court will have bandwidth limitations. Videoconferencing has the Court, the parties and attorneys on livestream video. VCourt is similar to a conference call. The Court hopes to conduct as much business as possible via videoconferencing, particularly Law and Motion and evidentiary hearings. The Court prefers videoconferences to observe witness demeanor, etc. Case Progress Conferences will be held via telephone through VCourt.
As for logistics, as noted above, attorneys will need to plan ahead by sending exhibits ahead of time, via email to the Court and opposing counsel, as well as having third-party witnesses available.
If your clients are non-English speaking, there is an interpreter function on the platform.
There may be a need to move Law & Motion hearings to other times of the day or to other days to accommodate the other courts.
Would video conferencing be beneficial to Family Court Services and the mediation process?
Family Court Services will only be having telephonic appearances due to technology limitations. However, they will not be interviewing children via telephone based on privacy issues. If a counselor wishes to interview children, they will be brought into Court with social distancing guidelines adhered to.
Will the Court be hosting remote ISCs anytime soon?
The Court has been working with the ISC committee to determine how to conduct these conferences. It is looking at having the panelists host via their own online platform because of the Court’s bandwidth concerns.
Again, in regard to the Court’s bandwidth limitations, criminal and juvenile cases have priority over family law, civil, and probate matters.
What may the Family Law Section do to help?
Judge Adams acknowledged that our family law bar has always been extraordinary in its creativity and generosity. She asks that the bar please keep doing that. In addition to what attorneys have already been doing, help each other with mediations, possibly by exchanging services to mediate each others' cases. In addition, both Legal Aid of Marin and Family & Children’s Law Center could use volunteers.
If you have any ideas, please email any of the judges. This is a great time to settle cases and the Court will do whatever it can to help facilitate settlements.
Judge Adams further acknowledged that the Court is very aware that attorneys have taken a financial hit because of this pandemic. The judges were all practicing lawyers and understand and appreciate that.
She also reiterated her request that everyone have patience. We are going through an awful time that is challenging and alarming. The Court supports you, just as you have supported the Court, for which the judges are grateful. “We are all in this together and we will only get better.”
Kristine Cirby is a Family Law Attorney. She has over 25 years of experience in family law, with the last 20 years exclusively in Marin County. Kristine currently serves on the Marin County Bar Association Board of Directors as well as on the Board of Trustees for the Marin County Law Library.