On May 6, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court issued it's fourth order in response to the Covid-19 emergency. This order was a modification of the March 12, 2020 Order Declaring a Judicial Emergency In Response to Covid-19 Emergency. After the March 12, 2020 order, the Virginia Supreme Court issued an Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency in Response to Covid-19 Emergency on March 16, 2020, and a Third Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency in Response to Covid-19 Emergency on April 22, 2020.
Collectively, the orders on March 12th, March 16th, and on April 22nd, suspended all non-essential, non-emergency court proceedings and continued all civil matters (which cover family law matters) with an exception for emergency matters like protective order cases and emergency child custody or protection cases (which fall in the category of family law matters). The March 16, 2020 order required courts to give precedence on the their dockets for emergency matters. That same order gave judges the discretion to determine whether a matter was urgent enough to qualify as an emergency matter. Further, the March 16, 2020 order encouraged, consistent with existing law, the use of two-way electronic audio-visual communication. The April 22nd order took matters a step further by permitting the hearing of non-emergency matters by agreement via two-way electronic audio-visual communication. Despite the exceptions which allowed family law cases into the courts, the practical affect was to bring the court system to a grinding halt. Of course, that stoppage has come with a price. On May 6, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court began making the price a little less steep.
The Virginia Supreme Court's May 6th order explained in great detail the challenges the courts were facing as a result of the COVID-19 emergency noting that "[e]very week, with the dockets limited only to emergency cases, adds approximately 60,000, 18,000 and 19,000 more cases to the growing backlog in the General District, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts and Circuit Courts, respectively" and also noting that courts were short staffed and that little relief on that front could be expected in the short term due to to budget problems also created by the emergency. Obviously, the court system and all participants in it are facing challenging times ahead.
However, for the first time, while stating a preference for conducting hearings by video conferencing or telephone, the Court cracked the door open ever so slightly for the courts to begin hearing non emergency matters again. More specifically, the Virginia Supreme Court stated that "effective May 18, 2020, all courts may hear in-person non-emergency matters if they determine it is safe to do so, and provided they comply with the guidance for transitioning from emergency to routine operations provided by the Office of the Executive Secretary in order to minimize the risk of the spread of COVID-19 from in-person court proceedings."
While the courts are far from functioning at their former levels, this is a positive sign for the future. However, the impact of the last few months will be felt for many more months ahead and it will be imperative for family law attorneys to come up with strategies for navigating crowded future court dockets in a manner consistent with their clients' best interests.