Thoughts on the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on family law

Virus Cells

Update March 30, 2020:

I would like to assure you that Chinn & Associates is fully operational. We have a small firm and only 6 people on our floor, so we are safe coming to work and keeping our office open. I also wipe and spray services more than once during the day. Every one is healthy. For client conferences, we have established “Gotomeeting” as a mechanism for virtual conferences. You can view us and talk to us on your Iphone, lap top or Ipad. Let us know if you would like to schedule a conference.

In addition, we are completely outfitted to work remotely and from home. We are doing quite a bit of this to do our part in social distancing and also to make sure we are adept at remote work should there be a quarantine order in our area.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered Courts and Clerks to remain open, although actual trials and in person motion hearings have been cancelled for the next 6 weeks. Judges remain available to handle emergencies, sign orders, conduct business and facilitate virtual motion hearings. The bottom line is that we can complete 95% of our work under the current scenario!! There is no reason for you to worry that you are without legal recourse or assistance at this time!!

Update March 20, 2020: 

Courts are closing. Almost all of the courts in the country are shut down with the exception of emergency matters. It is my understanding that most judges and clerks remain on duty to take care of the legal business of the country where absolutely necessary; however, most courts are clearing their dockets of motions and trials between now and May 15 or June 1. Lawsuits may be filed and may continue with discovery, etc., but court hearings are going to be difficult to come by. What does this mean? If there are contempt or child support or child visitation problems, there is a good chance that these problems may not be addressed by a court for a long time. If your divorce or other family problem has been pending for a while and you would like to bring it to conclusion, the courts are probably not going to be available to you, and you should consider alternative means of resolution such as serious negotiation or mediation. Mediation usually only involves five people and can be handled in a way where only three people are together at a time, so risk can be minimized. Where no in-person contact is desire, there seems to be no reason why mediations can’t be handled with creative use of virtual conferencing.

Court Ordered Payments. Since people and businesses may not be collecting income or wages, child support, alimony, and other payments are going to become a problem. If you owe such payments and no longer have the ability to make them, you should consider contacting a lawyer to file a motion for modification. While the pandemic is of such an emergent nature throughout the world, and courts will likely take this into consideration, the better part of valor is to file a motion for modification before you fall into arrears to provide you with maximum protection from contempt. Filing a motion for modification may not resolve you of the obligation, but impossibility of payment is a defense to being held in contempt. DO NOT JUST CUT OR STOP PAYMENTS WITHOUT CONSULTING A LAWYER!

Visitation. Questions are going to arise about whether or not healthcare and other professionals who are exposed to sick people should be in the presence of their children, whether for custody or visitation. Of course, such professionals have always had those issues. In light of the pandemic, however, there are going to be questions about this. Any possible answer to this problem will probably change by the day, if not the hour. However, I would like to offer the following, the first three of which came from an emergency room physician:

1. Children are in the lowest risk group in the population.

2. According to recent figures, for every confirmed case of coronavirus, there could be 5 to 10 unconfirmed cases, so there is a risk of exposure regardless of what the parent does for an occupation.

3. Medical and other personnel who are used to working with ill people, know that they are under an obligation to determine whether or not they should self-quarantine and limit visitation if they are having symptoms or know they’ve been exposed to a coronavirus patient, without proper PPE.

4. Parents must work together in this difficult time because children need both parents and they do not need to be brought into panic mode by unnecessarily isolating them from a parent. At the least, parents should consider extensive use of face time and skype to keep children and parents connected.

Working with your lawyer. Law offices are closing in the same way and numbers that other nonessential businesses are. However, client business and meetings can take place through use of technology. Certainly, clients can talk to their lawyers by telephone. Many lawyers have the capability of creating virtual conferences through the use of online meeting applications. In courts where there is electronic filing, lawyers can draft and file pleadings remotely and instantly. While there is sure to be a slowdown in some activity, you can still consult with and receive assistance from a lawyer in almost all situations except those requiring nonemergent court hearings.

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