The world as we knew it came to a screeching halt in the middle of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a world where we were all moving so quickly before, a virus has caused us to reassess (hopefully for not much longer) what is important and it has been decided that to err on the side of caution is the best path forward. So, for now, we are all making the best of these times despite the hardships that are confronting us. Not being able to see family members, concern over elderly relatives, loss of income, loss of freedom and a sense of unease have spread across our city, state and nation.
What some of you may be most concerned about at this juncture is whether or not your family law case that had been active and ongoing can proceed to a court hearing or trial, depending on the stage of your case. You and your spouse may have been going through a difficult divorce. Or, you and the other parent to your child may have been engaged in a long child custody case that would determine where your child was going to be living primarily over the next few years.
Controlling the spread of COVID-19 has seen our government take control of our lives in ways that I don’t think any of us could have envisioned even a few months ago. The degree to which we take charge of our own lives and go about our business on our schedules has been seriously upended of late. We can debate whether or not the stay at home orders have been effective, but what I do not think is up for debate is that the changes to our lives have had unintended consequences that in some cases are significant.
What challenges have we seen that impact family courts directly?
An examination of the most significant challenges that we have seen will show you their direct impact on the world of family law and the courts. Consider how the closing of your child’s school for the rest of the semester (if not longer) has impacted your life. It is still the case that the school calendar dictates the possession schedule that you and your ex-spouse have with your child. However, I’m willing to bet that on multiple occasions that both of you have had questions regarding who should be in possession of your child over a certain period because the schools are no longer in session.
Next, consider the impact on our lives that social distancing has had. Looking around at a grocery store or other business we can see signs that instruct us to engage in proper social distancing so as to reduce the likelihood that we transmit the coronavirus to another person, or become susceptible to becoming infected ourselves. The same rules apply, of course, at the courthouse and as a result the courts have been closed for business for two months now.
Suppose that you were planning for an important hearing or even a trial set for April or May and then all of a sudden your attorney or the court contacts you to say that their doors will be closed for the foreseeable future. All the effort and time put into your case went up in smoke due to a virus that you had absolutely no control over. While you can seek updates from the court and can work with your attorney on temporary “handshake” agreements with your ex-spouse during this time period these are no substitutes for a court order based on the results of a hearing or trial.
Travel restrictions are another aspect of these quarantined times that we have to consider as being very impactful on families awaiting a court date in their family law case. If you work outside the state of Texas then your ability to earn an income may have been severely hampered by travel restrictions or at the very least the difficulties inherent in traveling during a worldwide pandemic. If you live outside of Texas then driving or flying to the Lone Star state in order to see your child may not have been in the cards for you.
Finally, the economic shutdown has had and will continue to have consequences on all areas of the economy. You may have had to shut down your business for a period of time and are only now able to re-open under the governor’s prescribed plan to open the state up for business. Or, you may have had your hours restricted and ability to make sales calls burdened by the stay at home orders. In the future, even government employees of the state, county or city of Houston may face layoffs as counties struggle to deal with the loss of millions of dollars of tax revenue due to the shutdowns.
What are family law judges able to do in order to meet these challenges?
So, we just laid out a number of challenges that our world and our area are facing due to the covid19 pandemic. Let’s circle back to the original question of how family courts are handling these challenges and what you can do to move your case along during these tougher than normal times.
For one, courts have been attempting to meet these challenges as swiftly as possible despite the difficulties in moving the procedures of a court that has probably done the same things the same ways for decades or more. These aren’t business cases or wills that need to be probated in the family courts. Rather, these are the goings on and doings of families just like yours. Especially if your family faces an emergency it is crucial for these courts to be able to intervene when called upon to do so.
Deadlines to file documents, respond to filings from your opposing party and other procedures inherent in a family law case have been lifted. These may be issues that are more interesting to your attorney than to you, but ultimately all of these changes should be viewed in tandem by a person like yourself who is going through a family court case.
I think the most obvious change that we have seen in our lives since the beginning of the pandemic is how readily people have taken to conducting meetings of various sorts over the internet. Business meetings, classes, Church services and even court hearings can occur over a video screen rather than in person. This can help expedite matters somewhat and can also accomplish a twin goal of not exposing ourselves to other people.
As far as the ability to have your family law matter addressed by an in-person judge, the reality is that only “essential” cases are getting any docket time at the family courts in southeast Texas. I would offer to you that these are emergency cases (where the health or safety of a child or other party is at issue) or are cases that have been pending on the dockets for some years. Otherwise, your case may get placed on a docket for late summer or even early fall.
Proceed off of the school calendar for determining possession of your child
For the rest of the family law cases out there, the Texas Supreme Court has instructed us on multiple occasions to refer to the school calendar for determining possession. Essentially, this means that nothing really has changed at all since the pandemic has started. The rule has always been to refer to the school calendar for determining holidays, school closures, three-day weekends and the like. Even if class isn’t in session you should act as if it were and move forward that way.
Likewise, during the times of the shelter in place, stay at home or any various restrictions on our movement the high court in Texas determined that family court orders trump those temporary orders issued by county judges and administrators. No matter if you were only supposed to leave the house to get groceries, the fact is that you can still go and pick up your child even though the county higher ups have stated that only essential trips out of the house are allowed. For what it’s worth, if picking up your child to come you isn’t essential then I don’t know what is.
What are essential matters to be heard by the family courts?
Getting back to our earlier discussed topic of what is an essential court matter, it would seem that hearing for protective orders, emergency orders, family violence, and Child Protective Services (CPS) cases meet the definition of essential right now. A simple matter like the prove up of a divorce case are likely to be conducted electronically right now so as to not tie up the court with matters that can be handled just fine without any in person hearings.
While the law is a field that sees changes occur frequently within the laws themselves, the actual process of going about a family law case has not changed dramatically over the years. Going to hearings, submitting requests for discovery, attending mediation and the like all occur pretty much the same way now as they did 20 years ago. The coronavirus has forced us to consider how important it is to willingly adapt to changes in technology that can assist both clients and attorneys.
What is the Law Office of Bryan Fagan doing to help keep you and your family safe?
In addition to the courts themselves, the Law Office of Bryan Fagan has taken steps to ensure the safety of our clients, our community and our staff while continuing to advocate for our clients and their families. For instance, in person meetings have largely been supplanted by video meetings and telephone calls. We are doing our best to utilize our staff in the most effective ways possible in order to make sure that our clients are aware of any changes in their cases.
For most of us social media is now a medium through which we receive news. It is by far the most timely way to stay abreast of the news and the changes that have been occurring due to the pandemic. We can get instantaneous updates on social media rather than having to wait hours until the evening news to find out what is going on. Our office is using this blog to provide information on family law and our other social media platforms to provide updates on policies and procedures in the courts.
Mediation can be done over the computer as well. Attorneys and mediators have become very adept at organizing virtual meetings in order to complete cases rather than have to wait months for a trial once the pandemic has subsided. Some of these changes are ones that could have and possibly should have been implemented earlier (such as virtual prove up hearings). Other changes are less popular and may not survive these pandemic times. Regardless of our views on the changes, they are here now and we have to adjust in order to make the best of these circumstances.
In tomorrow’s blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan we will consider some important questions that need to be addressed related to family law and the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that you will join us then to learn more about how all these issues we discussed today are interrelated and can impact your family.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about the information that we have discussed today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer over the phone and virtual consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are a great opportunity for you to ask questions about your life, your case and our office. While nobody knows when this pandemic will end, we can tell you that our office will be here to serve our community without reservation or hesitation.
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Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC | Houston, Texas Divorce Lawyers
The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC routinely handles matters that affect children and families. If you have questions regarding divorce, it's important to speak with one of our Houston, TX Divorce Lawyers right away to protect your rights.
Our divorce lawyers in Houston TX are skilled at listening to your goals during this trying process and developing a strategy to meet those goals. Contact Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC by calling (281) 810-9760 or submit your contact information in our online form. The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC handles Divorce cases in Houston, Texas, Cypress, Klein, Humble, Kingwood, Tomball, The Woodlands, the FM 1960 area, or surrounding areas, including Harris County, Montgomery County, Liberty County, Chambers County, Galveston County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County and Waller County.