As the coronavirus sweeps across the U.S. and the government struggles to contain it, widespread shutdowns have become the norm. While large social gatherings have taken the biggest hit, courts have been shuttered in some states, as well.
The Coronavirus Shutdown Beginning to Affect Courts
Whenever a coronavirus case appears in a new city or county, the local government has become quick to react with aggressive edicts to slow its spread. When Montgomery County began seeing cases climb, Governor Wolf issued a two-week shutdown for:
- Movie theaters
- Daycare centers
- Community centers
Other areas in the U.S. have done similar things. In nearby Maryland, the shutdown extended to court hours. Chief Judge Barbera ordered all trials in the state to be suspended until April 3, though judicial hearings would continue.
How Will This Impact Domestic Violence Hearings and Protection Orders?
A court shutdown is going to be an inconvenience for anyone who has a scheduled appearance, trial, or hearing that gets pushed back. However, for domestic violence situations, a court shutdown can mean much more.
When alleged victims of domestic violence go to court and ask for a protection from abuse order, they need immediate help. Courts planning a shutdown are bound to know this and should take reasonable steps to make sure that a judge is available. However, each court system is going to have its own rules for a shutdown, so it's impossible to know for sure how they'll handle it.
Here's what we can expect, though.
Emergency PFAs Should Continue as Normal
Emergency PFAs are the restraining orders that alleged victims can request immediately. They only last overnight and are generally issued by an on-call magistrate.
These PFAs are unlikely to be changed at all by a coronavirus-related court shut down because there's no hearing and not even a meeting between the judge and the complainant. With little chance of a virus spreading and a strong need to keep the process the same, courts shouldn't change the procedures.
Ex Parte PFAs Likely to See Few Changes
Ex parte PFAs are often the follow-up to an emergency restraining order. This is where the complainant has a hearing alone with the judge or magistrate and has to show that they are in immediate and present danger.
These hearings have more person-to-person contact than emergency PFAs, but still not enough to warrant significant changes. A court shutdown shouldn't impact how ex parte PFAs proceed.
Final PFAs Most Likely to See Delays
The final PFA is where the judge, the complainant, and the defendant – as well as their lawyers – will all be in the same room. While this is still far fewer people than are present during a traditional trial, if a court shutdown is especially draconian, judges might delay these hearings. If they do, they are likely to extend whatever interim PFA order is already in place, so that it covers the time until the final PFA hearing.