With Chaos, Comes Opportunity – Court Initiatives During COVID-19 That Hopefully Will Continue to be Implemented for Years to Come

As someone who has repeatedly sought to bring some levity to my articles on the topic of divorce, an objectively life-altering event, I find myself contemplating how the current COVID-19 pandemic will shape our lives, most importantly, but also the divorce process in the years to come. Despite working for four years as a public health professional in bioterrorism and emergency preparedness for my native Los Angeles County, I am far from qualified to dispense advice on the long-term impact of the pandemic on our lives, so I will focus this article on the divorce side of things.

Sun Tzu famously wrote in The Art of War, “in the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.” As a quick aside, I think that I once used that quote as an away message on my AOL Instant Messenger account, probably in reference to a fizzled high school romance or something. See, levity. Anyway, while I usually reserve famous quotes for ironic and/or comedic purposes in lighter times, I think the quote well-encapsulates the glimmer of hope for positive change and adaptation in the middle of this incredible public health crisis.

The Family Law Bar (not the place selling $5 pitchers across the street from the Courthouse), is a resourceful bunch of collaborative and adaptable attorneys, who, despite their chosen profession, are often some of the nicest and collegial individuals you will meet.  We have to be.  We are around each other a lot – in Court, in meetings, in alternative dispute resolutions, and occasionally at the bar across the street from the Courthouse.  Our interactions are often in high-stressed situations and dealing with some challenging issues and clients who are going through some tough times.

Divorce and family law are dynamic areas of law that constantly change, from overhauled tax legislation (remember when alimony used to be deductible to the spouse paying it?), to making new law through the appellate process on once-novel issues regarding the right to marry and assisted reproductive technology.  I look forward to seeing how we collectively adapt to these challenging new circumstances in the weeks, months, and years to come.

In the interim, the Probate and Family Court, where all divorce and family law matters are adjudicated, was forced to make rapid and wide-sweeping changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. My esteemed colleagues have written about a number of the recent Court orders that will apply during these uncertain times (click to see posts from Robin Lynch Nardone, Francine Gardikas, Ann Hetherwick Cahill, and Russell Smith). One of the things I have been most impressed by is the Court’s push for litigants and attorneys to utilize some of the tools and resources that have been available, but underutilized (for a variety of reasons), in an effort to pivot from the day-to-day operations to which we had become so accustomed.

Many of us in the family law practice, myself included, have pushed for the following to become common practice:

  • E-filing Court pleadings rather than via mail or in-person;
  • allowing for effective service of motions and oppositions to opposing counsel and interested parties via email;
  • occasional telephonic or videoconference hearings, when circumstances permit;
  • increased administrative approval (without a hearing required) for uncontested matters, including Joint Motions and Joint Stipulations; and
  • the option for staggered hearing times, as opposed to several hundred people showing up at or around 8:30 a.m. waiting for their case to be called.

In the midst of the chaos brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Probate and Family Court saw an opportunity to implement and encourage the aforementioned practices.  I, for one, am hopeful that many of these practices will become “woven into the fabric” of the Court process once the Courts eventually resume normal business. In the meantime, I hope you and your family are able to stay healthy and safe during these times. I will be welcoming a new member to my family in the coming days, which I am sure will provide for some future stories and anecdotes in the months and years to come. Talk about chaos and opportunity.