This post was updated on May 1, 2020.
Since mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually all aspects of life in the United States, and court operations are no exception. Courts in the D.C. metropolitan area are currently operating on a very limited basis. At the same time, for many people, tensions with their spouse and/or divorced co-parent are at an all-time high. Families have been cooped up at home for weeks already, and it’s increasingly looking like this new status quo may continue much longer as stay-at-home orders are extended.
On top of being largely confined to home, furloughs, layoffs, and fear of the virus itself are major additional stressors, fueling interpersonal conflict between stressed out spouses and/or divorced co-parents. If you are having major disagreements with your spouse or co-parent over childcare and/or sharing custody during the pandemic, you are not alone. Many people are wondering whether a court will address any of their concerns on an emergency basis during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all issued guidance on their limited operations during this unprecedented time.
On March 18, 2020, the Superior Court for the District of Columbia issued an Amended Order outlining court procedures through May 15, 2020. Pursuant to the Order, the family court will hear “emergency matters only.” Although “emergency matter” has not been defined, in rejecting an opposing party’s recent attempt to obtain an emergency hearing, one D.C. Superior Court judge indicated that an emergency hearing would not be granted absent “imminent danger to the child” or “parental kidnapping.” If your child is in imminent danger, or there is parental kidnapping, you may be able to obtain a hearing on an emergency basis. Relief is also potentially available in the D.C. Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Division, through the Emergency Temporary Protection Order Process.
On April 14, 2020, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a Second Amended Administrative Order Expanding and Extending Statewide Judiciary Restricted Operations due to the COVID-19 Emergency. All Maryland courts have been restricted to emergency operations and are otherwise closed with limited exceptions through June 5, 2020. For family law, those limited exceptions include domestic violence protection orders, temporary restraining orders, extreme risk protection orders, and “family law emergencies”. Like D.C., Maryland has not defined what constitutes a family law emergency. The Order explicitly states that the judge on duty will review the petition and decide whether it must be heard in person, or can be heard with remote electronic participation, or can be scheduled after this emergency period has ended, or can be resolved without a hearing.
On April 22, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court entered an Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency in Response to COVID-19 Emergency, including guidance for the courts to continue emergency operations through May 17, 2020. Emergency child custody motions are still being heard in northern Virginia Courts, including Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, for cases in which relief is necessary to prevent imminent harm to a child.
At present, to be heard on an emergency basis during the COVID-19 pandemic, your situation must be severe, but relief remains potentially available through the courts, either through obtaining a protective order or an emergency hearing.
If you have any questions about whether you can present your issue to a judge on an emergency basis, do not hesitate to contact an experienced family law attorney. Even if your situation does not constitute an “emergency” that the courts will hear, an attorney can creatively help you work to resolve the situation and can help you position yourself best for when courts do reopen. It is important to understand how fluid the current situation is. As time goes on, we expect the courts to increasingly provide more services as they adapt to this new reality. If you are in immediate danger, call the police (911).