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How to Navigate Family Court Cases in a Post-Pandemic World

man with a briefcase and a surgical mask

The statewide shutdowns of Michigan courts are over, and residents and families across the state are starting to move back to some semblance of normalcy. But COVID-19 continues to be a significant concern. Find out what your local court is doing to fight the virus, and how to navigate family court cases now that the courts have partially reopened.

Michigan Family Courts Go Virtual Even Post-Pandemic

On June 26, 2020, the Michigan State Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO) issued an order reopening courts across the state -- at least in limited ways. After more than two months of functional shut-downs, court staff are now scrambling to move hearings online and catch up on the backlog of hearings and trials that were scheduled during the pandemic response period.

As much as possible, the SCAO has instructed local courts to hold motion hearings, status conferences and other procedural matters online (mostly through Zoom) or by telephone. Some courts have even begun holding trials and evidentiary hearings virtually.

There has been a learning curve to shifting to virtual hearings, and some judges and family law attorneys have struggled to present and receive evidence, advocate for their clients in hearings, or adjust to the new technology. Others, however, have moved seamlessly into this new era of online legal work, advocating from their living rooms or private offices, and meeting with their clients in secure virtual spaces that protect confidentiality and preserve physical distance at the same time.

Family Court Cases in Washtenaw County Trial Court

The Washtenaw County Trial Court is trying to minimize the need for parties and lawyers to enter its Ann Arbor courthouse. It has shifted to mandatory e-filing for attorneys, though parties can still drop off documents at the courthouse dropbox located near the entrance. Ann Arbor family court motions are primarily scheduled on Zoom. In-person access to courtrooms is limited to parties, their attorneys, and necessary participants. Visitors will be screened for symptoms and required to wear a facemask and follow floor markings and signs directing traffic flow.

Attending Family Court Hearings in Oakland County Circuit Court

That includes Friend of the Court hearings. When in-person hearings are necessary, members of the public will be screened before entering the courthouse in Pontiac. If you have a temperature, Coronavirus symptoms, or have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19, you will be turned away and your hearing will be rescheduled. Face masks and social distancing are required throughout the building, and each courtroom will have limited occupancy.

What to Expect in Livingston County Family Court Cases

Livingston County courts are following the SCAO’s restrictions. Livingston County family courts are continuing to operate at the 44th Circuit Court in Howell and Brighton. However, most matters are being scheduled on Zoom. If Zoom is unavailable, or the judge determines in-person attendance is necessary, only the parties and their attorneys are allowed into the courthouse. The courthouse requires all visitors to disclose if they:

  • Have traveled outside the country or to a part of the U.S with widespread infections
  • Live with or had close contact with someone who travelled to a high-risk country or area
  • Have been directed to self-quarantine by a doctor
  • Have been diagnosed or in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Presently have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath

If you fall into any of these categories, you will not be allowed into the courthouse. You should contact your attorney or the court to have the in-person hearing rescheduled.

Alternatives to Waiting for the Family Courts to Hear Your Case

The Michigan family court judges and staff are doing everything they can to move cases forward virtually. But the truth is that this new post-pandemic system is slower than before, and it will take time for the courts to catch up on the hearings they had to cancel. If you had a case scheduled for trial during the shutdown or filed for divorce in Washtenaw County or Southeast Michigan during the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, it may take months for your trial or evidentiary hearing to come before the judge. But there are faster options.

Now, more than ever, alternative dispute resolution processes can provide a faster option to couples who simply need to resolve their family law issue and move forward with their lives. Whether you need to modify your child support or spousal support order because you lost your job due to the pandemic, or are trying to get a divorce after too many months living in constant contact, you may want to try to resolve the matter outside of court. Depending on your circumstances, priorities, and resources, you could consider:

  • Attorney-assisted negotiations (which often happen entirely through emails or phone calls)
  • Domestic mediation through Zoom or telephone conferencing
  • Collaborative practice including virtual meetings with divorce lawyers, coaches, and counselors
  • Private arbitration which can often be done online and scheduled sooner than the court docket allows

Once you and your spouse or co-parent come to a resolution using any of these methods, the resulting Settlement Agreement or Order can be submitted to the court, and your case can be resolved without waiting for the court to catch up with its post-pandemic docket.

At NSSSB, we understand that this has been a hard season for families across Michigan. If you are waiting for your day in court, our Southeast Michigan family law attorneys are happy to review your case and help you consider alternative dispute resolution processes that could get your matter resolved quicker. We can also help you navigate the technical challenges of appearing at a virtual court hearing through Zoom and advocate on your behalf in virtual hearings. Click here to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

Categories: Family Law Blog