The coronavirus pandemic has changed almost every aspect of our daily lives. The court system is no exception. Court closures, case delays, remote hearings, health screenings, and massive backlogs have changed the way courts operate.
While it is difficult to predict when courts will resume normal operations, it is worth considering what the civil court system will look like after it’s over. In addition to new policies and restrictions in courthouses, the types of cases likely to be filed in the end will reflect financial and legal issues related to the pandemic.
Long Delays and Backlogs
Expect long delays and backlogs due to extended closures and other restrictions. There is no uniform set of rules that apply to U.S. courts. Each has its own policies, procedures, and set of circumstances in regards to the pandemic. For instance, hot spots throughout the country are currently experiencing surges in case counts and increased community transmission of the virus. Areas with hot spots are more likely to have renewed lockdown measures, including court closures. When the courts lift restrictions, there will be a period of catchup while they deal with the backlog of cases.
Electronic Courts are Here to Stay
One of the most effective ways to prepare for what might happen in your courthouse is to check the court’s website periodically for updates related to COVID-19. You can confirm that your case will proceed or determine if you need to complete a public health questionnaire. You might also determine whether you are even allowed to enter the courthouse. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you may not be. Court appearances by video conferencing (Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc) speeds up the hearing process. In fact, it’s more convenient, allows the parties to avoid waiting in line, and reduces scheduling issues. So get comfortable with using this technology for court. It has become routine in a short period of time. To be honest, the technology was going in that direction anyway. The pandemic simply sped up the inevitable.
Massive Evictions and Foreclosure Proceedings
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instituted a temporary ban on evictions. This is set to expire in January 2021. When the stays are lifted, landlords who have not been able to collect rent from financially struggling tenants are expected to rush to the courthouse to seek evictions. Banks will be highly motivated to start the foreclosure process on mortgages that have been unpaid for months. The silver lining for you is that in the rush to file eviction and foreclosure claims, landlords and mortgage companies will be tempted to cut corners. Doing so would open them up to delays, if not dismissals. So, read documents carefully, explore legal defenses, and find supporting case law. In other words, be prepared to take advantage of any opening.
Should You Prepare to Settle?
The vast majority of civil cases end in a settlement. Even in normal times, court cases could take years to resolve. One reason parties might be more inclined to settle during the pandemic or shortly thereafter is that delay time may double. If you are presented with a fair settlement offer, take it seriously. Conversely, if an offer of settlement dramatically disadvantages you, don’t feel rushed to accept it. Fight for a fair settlement despite the difficult times we live in.
You Are Not Alone
If the changes ushered in by the pandemic leave you feeling confused and frustrated, keep in mind that you’re not alone. Everyone is a little bewildered. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Many of the changes in the court are good ones. Of course, there will be no “getting back to normal”, but the new normal will have its own benefits. So there is a reason for hope.