When COVID-19 first began spreading throughout the United States in early 2020, most courts in New Jersey closed and put non-essential legal proceedings on temporary hold. Fortunately, this delay was relatively short-lived. Once courts set up the right infrastructure for virtual hearings, business more or less continued as usual using Zoom and other methods of communication.
Now that a full year has passed since the outbreak of COVID-19, courts are currently hearing all the same types of family law cases that they heard prior to the pandemic. However, the legal procedures have changed significantly, as have the methods for fulfilling documentary and testimonial requirements. A knowledgeable family lawyer can further explain these changes and help you proceed with your case during the pandemic.
In some ways, the onset of COVID-19 has simplified elements of family law cases. For example, both litigants and attorneys involved in family law cases now have access to a Judiciary Electronic Document Submissions (JEDS) system. This allows them to submit complaints, motions, and other legal documents more quickly and less expensively than before. On top of that, more court officials and staff members are available via email now, a simple convenience that used to be uncommon.
The emphasis on virtual proceedings has also significantly simplified uncontested divorces. Before, most New Jersey counties required a court appearance by both parties even if there were no disputes between them. Now, parties to an uncontested or previously settled divorce can submit their final agreement in writing and receive their Judgement of Divorce back in a matter of hours, all without ever having to set foot inside a courtroom.
For types of family litigation, virtual proceedings work more or less the same as legal processes before the pandemic. Everything from initial consultations with legal counsel to court motions to trials can occur through Zoom or a similar program. In fact, even sensitive proceedings like mediation can happen virtually, with mediators using Zoom’s “breakout rooms” to maintain private conversations and ensure a fair process.
Back in June of 2020, New Jersey courts began scheduling in-person trials again as part of the second phase of its COVID response plan. However, the courts prioritized criminal and civil trials over family law cases, and they will likely continue this prioritization. Additionally, more recent upticks in infection rates have slowed down in-person jury trials again, although the state Supreme Court has recently authorized virtual civil trials to help alleviate some of the backlog.
For these reasons, it is safe to assume that all non-emergency family law proceedings will be conducted remotely for the foreseeable future. There may be limited exceptions for sensitive matters like Final Restraining Order hearings if the defendant specifically requests an in-person hearing. Certain longstanding trials with extensive exhibits already in the possession of the court may also proceed in-person, though they will likely experience significant delay.
In short, if you have any family law matter you need to resolve in the near future, you can expect your case to proceed efficiently through virtual means. Guidance from a seasoned family attorney at our firm could help ensure the timely resolution of your case despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.