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What’s Going On With The Courts? An Update on the Impact of COVID-19 on Pennsylvania Court Operations

On Behalf of | May 6, 2020 | Firm News |

For the past 2 months, lawyers and clients alike have been faced with the uncertainty of what is going to happen with court cases when the economy starts to reopen and legal cases begin to move through the pipeline again. At the current moment, it feels like everything has been put on “pause” and there is little recourse for those who need help or guidance from the courts. It has not been easy to navigate, but our local courts actually seem to be trying to do their best to accommodate individual needs and constitutional rights, while balancing the need for public safety and adhering to strict social distancing guidelines provided by the Center for Diseases Control and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The information in this blog post will provide a brief update on some of the local counties and how they have responded in light of the judicial emergency, and what types of matters can still proceed through the courts and those that cannot.

It all began on March 16 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a sweeping Order that effectively closed all state courts to the public and limited court operations to only those matters that are deemed “essential functions.”  Since this happened in mid-March, our state’s highest court has issued supplemental orders that further expand and define the limited operations that are allowed to take place. At the time of this writing, the high court has closed all courts through April 30, 2020, but has authorized president judges in all 67 counties to extend the judicial emergency (and keep courts closed) through May 31, 2020, if the president judges so choose.

In practice, every county has been handling their respective judicial emergencies differently, so it is especially important to check with your attorney and figure out the status of what is going on at the county-level and how the closures might affect any deadlines or scheduled court appearances for your case. Depending on what county you live in and where your court case is being heard, it will vary. Contact an attorney today to discuss.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County is under a judicial emergency and the county courthouse is closed to the general public until May 31, 2020. Although the courthouse is closed to most visitors, the entrance on Main Street is open and available for emergency or essential matters from 9am-2pm Monday to Friday; this is for individuals who need to file things like a Protection From Abuse, an emergency petition for child custody, or criminal bail matters.

To promote social distancing and public safety, the Court is only utilizing two of its largest courtrooms in the building, Courtrooms B and C. These large courtrooms will be used when video technology is unavailable or for matters that need to be heard right away by an emergency judge, like Protection From Abuse hearings. Two signing judges will be on staff and on-call during business hours.

A full list of “emergency matters” that are currently being heard by the Montgomery County courts can be found here.

A list of suggested guidelines for parents dealing with custody orders in Montgomery County can be found here.

During the judicial emergency, the Prothonotary’s Office is still accepting non-emergency filings but is not scheduling them. The office has indicated that you do not need to refile once the emergency declaration is lifted. Rather, any non-emergency filings that are received and time-stamped during this time will sit in a queue to be scheduled upon the court’s reopening.

For individuals in Montgomery County that are victims or experiencing domestic abuse, the Prothonotary’s Office has encouraged PFA petitioners to arrive no later than noon to ensure that they can be heard before the Court. More information is available at 610-278-1191, or after-hours assistance is available at the 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-773-2424.  The Court most recently rescinded the judicial emergency order effective May 31, 2020 and will resume operations thereafter.  Details regarding this reopening will be forthcoming.

Bucks County

The Bucks County Court website indicates that its judicial emergency currently extends through May 15, 2020 and there will be no civil or criminal jury trials prior to June 15, 2020. The Family Division and Domestic Relations Section of Bucks County Courthouse are open and functioning under limited operations during the judicial emergency- a list of procedures and matters that are being heard in the family division (including Protection From Abuse) can be found here.

Like most local courts, Bucks County has closed all of its courts to the public except for essential and emergency matters, such as bench warrant hearings, juvenile detention hearings, emergency petitions for guardianship, and others. In effort to limit in-person appearances, the Court has directed that any matters that may be handled through telecommunication technology should proceed if at all possible.

Chester County

On April 17, Chester County extended its judicial emergency and general court closures through May 31,2020. The Court issued a statement indicating that anybody who is expected to attend proceedings in Chester County courts is permitted to appear in business casual dress; the relaxed dress code was implemented in order to facilitate more frequent clothes washing and out of an abundance of caution.

Beginning on May 4, the essential functions of the court will be expanded to allow for more types of cases and matters to be heard- such as juvenile delinquency hearings,  and any other type of hearing which the parties agree to be heard by the court. This is encouraging to see that courts are beginning to expand the “essential matters” that are being heard during the judicial emergency. Hopefully other surrounding counties will soon follow. Chester County has strict policies in place for the use of advanced communication technology (like video conferencing), and staggered proceedings throughout the day to make sure that everyone entering the building can follow social distancing protocols.

Delaware County

Delaware County is currently under an emergency judicial order and its courts are shuttered through April 30, 2020.  Most matters that were previously scheduled through April 30, 2020 are now being continued and rescheduled by the designated judge or hearing officer.  Much like other counties, the current orders are extended through May 31, 2020 and there are still some components of the Courts operating.

As shown above, although most matters are cancelled or rescheduled in these times, the Courts are still functioning for some matters.  If you have a matter and are unsure of your status in these challenging times, Conway Schadler is here to help.  Call us at 484-997-2040.