As the Prince William County Circuit Court reopens for Phase 1 on June 1, 2020, there will be a new look to how many people are in the courthouse (far fewer), how many cases will be heard (far fewer), how many people may be in the hallways or in the courtrooms at any given time (far fewer and limited to the litigants, witnesses, counsel, judges, bailiffs, and courtroom personnel) and how you will present (with a face mask). So here’s what you need to know.
Keeping Everyone Safe from the Coronavirus
The first consideration is keeping everyone safe from the coronavirus. Critically, social distancing will be observed. People in the hallway as well as in the courtroom and throughout the courthouse will be expected and required to maintain at least a six foot social distance from any other person. The courtrooms shall be limited to that number which may be seated at least six feet from any other person.
Of note is that only persons with business in the courthouse will be allowed into the courthouse. Many times in family law cases the litigant will bring family members or friends as their support system to trials and hearings. At this time only the parties, counsel, witnesses and members of the press shall be permitted in the courtroom.
Masks are required. In general masks are required to be worn at all times in the courthouse. No admission to the courthouse will be granted without a mask being worn properly to cover the nose and mouth. Circuit Court judges will have discretion in their courtroom to alter that requirement if necessary. All witnesses, litigants, counsel, and court reporters and court personnel shall be wearing their masks while in the courthouse.
There will be fewer judges to hear cases. The number of Circuit Court judges hearing cases on any given day will be at 50%. We have 6 seated judges, only 3 of whom will be hearing cases on any given day. Family law cases will be heard by one of those three judges. Criminal cases will be heard by one of those three judges. And the third judge will hear civil cases which may or may not be family law cases. This will be for Monday through Wednesday each week. Thursdays have historically been reserved for different matters and Fridays are when the court will hear motions. The number of motions docketed for any given Friday will be limited.
With fewer judges, fewer family law cases will be heard. The judge assigned to family law cases will be hearing Pendente Lite hearings, and perhaps Show Cause hearings and other short matters related to pending family law cases. Each of these generally takes no more than 2 hours. So it can be anticipated that no more than 3 – 4 of such matters will be heard on any given day. Any final hearing (think final divorce, property distribution, custody, spousal support and appeals from the lower courts) will be limited to one day. The counsel will be charged with ensuring that the evidence is presented and closed in that one day.
The Docketing System
To the extent the trial is not concluded in that one day, the matter will not be set for another day to finish but will be put at the back of the docketing line and redocketed. On the new trial date, the trial will start from the beginning and not as a continuation of the prior day of evidence. There will be far fewer hearing slots available on any given day then there are matters that are ripe to be heard. Also, there is a backlog of cases resulting from the court’s reduction during the early stages of the COVID19 pandemic. At that time many trials were removed from the docket and have yet to be scheduled for another trial date. These removed trials will be competing with newly filed matters for future trial and hearing dates.
At some point, the docketing system will return to the way it was prior to the COVID19 pandemic. This interim docketing system will not last forever. But, it is safe to assume that a truncated docketing system will be in place until the Circuit Court is able to safely move slowly back to a full docket and resume full services. Likely this will occur no sooner than a vaccine or at the very minimum, a reliable and effective treatment for COVID19 is found.
There are alternatives to waiting a long time for a trial date. Always available to the parties are alternate methods of dispute resolution including negotiation, arbitration, and mediation. An explanation of each of these shall be forthcoming in an upcoming post.
The team at Farrell & Croft, P.C. is here to help you navigate your legal issues to a successful resolution in the current environment. We offer telephone and Zoom initial consultations. Please call us today at 703-335-9390 and let our team work for you.