The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of life in New Jersey, and the courtroom and litigation processes are no exceptions. If you are considering a divorce, you may wonder how the pandemic might affect the scheduling and process of your case. Some of the changes that took place during the pandemic may linger on even after the state returns to normal with accelerating vaccination rates.
How Was the System Affected?
Jury trials were among the most significantly affected parts of the court system in New Jersey. However, since divorce cases do not involve juries and are only handled by a judge who acts both as the trier of fact and the trier of law, they were less likely to be postponed or delayed than criminal or civil cases requiring a full trial before a jury. Many of the standard procedures during a divorce action could be handled through virtual hearings, including settlement conferences, discovery motions and some more substantive issues. Between March 2020 and April 2021, over 120,000 remote and virtual court sessions took place that included almost 1.5 million participants, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In September 2020, several New Jersey counties began experimenting with a return to in-person trials. However, following another increase in the COVID-19 infection rate, these and other reopening measures were scaled back and virtual voluntary jury trials were launched. While these were originally used in only eight counties, they became mandatory across the state in April 2021 for civil cases.
As of this time, all civil cases could be scheduled for trials. Jury trials can often be more complex than divorce cases that are heard by a judge alone because they require all members of the jury to have the appropriate technology. Therefore, this process began with cases involving single plaintiffs and defendants as well as limited witnesses. The more people who need to be present or to present complex expert testimony, the more difficult it can be to present a full jury trial online. In most cases, complicated hearings have been postponed until the system can be applied using simpler cases.
While the jurors themselves would participate virtually, the attorneys could participate live from a courtroom, along with witnesses and experts, reaching jurors who would listen to this testimony at home. They would be provided with court-issued tablets to ensure that access to technology does not become a factor in jury selection.
Divorce Cases and the COVID-19 Pandemic
For divorce lawyers, the change was perhaps less dramatic than it was for other trial attorneys. The courts themselves did not close. While most of the New Jersey court system uses a standard e-filing procedure, the family court system typically does not. However, a different electronic system was opened to family law attorneys so that they could submit complaints, motions and other correspondence to the court where a judge was to preside over a pending divorce case. It was a welcomed and long awaited change which was embraced by family lawyers.
Indeed, many family lawyers reported that it was easier to reach court staff due to the protocols for email and virtual access put into place. It was no longer necessary to mail or hand-deliver letters, and email correspondence became the norm when dealing with legal secretaries, law clerks and other court staff in a judge’s office.
Those going through uncontested divorces often found the process easier during the COVID-19 pandemic. While uncontested divorces with a mutually-agreed settlement typically required a court appearance prior to the pandemic, these cases could now be processed solely through written submissions. This saved time for both divorce attorneys and their clients, who received their judgments of divorce more quickly and easily. Hearings for uncontested divorces that were not yet settled could be handled via Zoom or other video chat programs, with both parties and their family lawyers speaking to the terms of the agreement. While there may be some delays in receiving the physical divorce decree due to limited court hours, the actual process may be completed quickly despite the changes in the court system.
Some divorce attorneys have also reported fewer delays due to virtual scheduling. Hearings often take place on time and without lengthy delays, and travel and wait time costs are less of a factor for both lawyers and their clients. As in other types of cases, Zoom trials have been successfully conducted in most family law proceedings, with the only exceptions being extremely complex cases with significant numbers of witnesses and expert testimony, such as ones involving complicated financial issues.
Some family law attorneys reported an increase in their caseload during this time, especially once their clients learned that the courts were operating and that it would be possible to pursue a divorce without unnecessary delays and difficulties. Many lawyers hailed the technological advances that accompanied the pandemic, which may prove to be lasting changes to the handling of family law cases in New Jersey. In an otherwise difficult and challenging time, the ability to practice remotely was a silver lining of the pandemic.
Reopening and Divorce Cases
As New Jersey proceeds toward full reopening, you may expect that your divorce case may still be held remotely and a remote first policy will be adopted. There will be occasions where it will be handled in person. As of June 15, up to half of all state court staff and judges will be present in the courtroom, with that number expected to increase up to Aug. 2. As the summer progresses, in-person services and hearings will resume more quickly, although in other cases, virtual hearings will continue. If your case is complex, it may be easier to undergo an in-person hearing.
Even as reopening progresses, you may expect that aspects of your divorce will still be handled online. Your divorce attorney can provide you with the latest information as to how changing procedures and virtual or in-person hearings may affect the scheduling of your matter.
The COVID-19 pandemic and changes in the court system have also made alternative dispute resolution models appealing to some people seeking divorces. Mediation is a process by which a trained and neutral third party works with the family law attorneys representing their respective clients to reach a mutually acceptable settlement. Here, the divorce settlement can then be filed virtually with the court.
However, this requires an ability on the part of both spouses to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, which may pose a major challenge if the divorce is particularly contentious. Arbitration, on the other hand, is a private mechanism that has been approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court for use in divorce cases. Here, an arbitrator may issue a binding decision. While both parties must still agree on the arbitrator, this process is often faster than the court system and has often been favored by people with a high net worth or high profile reputations due to the privacy it provides. In addition, arbitrators and the respective parties may agree on how to handle virtual sessions for more complicated matters.
Alternative dispute resolution procedures continue to be an important mechanism for settling divorce cases, especially when dealing with financial issues and asset division. They are also handled with ease remotely.
If you are concerned about court delays, you can take comfort in the fact that most New Jersey courts continued to function normally during the pandemic, even if sessions took place virtually over Zoom. You don’t have to wait to get started with your divorce process. To learn more and receive advice for your situation, call Jeralyn Lawrence at the Lawrence Law office at 908-645-1000 or use our online contact form to request an appointment today.