COVID-19 San Diego Family Court Closure Updates
Today San Diego Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne provided insight in a Zoom meeting to over 2,500 attendees from the legal community into when and how the family courts would begin to re-open. Here are some of the questions she addressed and where to find more information:
When will the courts in San Diego County re-open?
The plan is for a “soft” re-opening as early as May 22nd but we are awaiting the approval of the Chief Justice before we know for sure. In preparation for this soft re-opening many changes are being implemented to make it safe for the public and for staff. The court does not expect to be operating at full capacity for quite some time. Here are a few changes you will see:
There will be curbside drop-boxes to drop-off paperwork for filing.
They are working to rapidly implement a previously planned sytem to file your divorce paperwork online.
Plexi-glass barriers and social distancing markers are being installed and social distancing will be required.
The staff are being supplied with masks, gloves, and disinfectant.
Some staff will be able to work remotely.
There will be telephonic and video hearings using Microsoft Teams rather than in-person hearings for the foreseeable future once they do open.
What services can I access while they are closed?
Although the family courts are all closed in San Diego county, over the past 6 weeks they remained open for emergencies. The courts issued 610 Domestic Violence Restraining Orders. You can still go to the courthouses in San Diego County if you need a restraining order. Today they expanded the types of hearings they will accept to include requests to renew restraining orders that are expiring, ex parte requests for truly emergency cases in all family matters, as well as emergency surrogacy orders.
Once the Family Courts re-open will my hearing be rescheduled?
As of today there are already 9,046 family court hearings to be rescheduled. The courts plan to triage hearings giving priority to domestic violence and emergency custody and visitation matters. Presiding Judge Alksne commented that there may be additional delays for some litigants as many lawyers have been laid off and clients may not only need a new court date but may also need to find a new attorney. Additionally, the courts expect to be short staffed either because their workers are sick, have children at home and no access to childcare, or are in a high risk group. You should expect a very gradual access to court services if you are not experiencing an emergency.
How will requests to modify child or spousal support orders be handled?
The Judicial Council of California enacted Emergency Rule 13 which gives judge’s discretion to backdate a request to modify a child or spousal support order to the date the requesting party emailed or served the request on the other party. This is a change in that judges can normally only backdate a modification of support to the date the order was filed and served on the other party. If you need increased support because you lost your job, or a decrease in the support you are paying due to a job loss, you do not have to wait for the court to open to establish your right to retroactivity.
What are your options?
As someone who used the San Diego Family courts for my divorce more than 10 years ago I can tell you, even before the scheduling clog created by the pandemic, the courts were already an awfully slow path to a divorce. My case was in the courts for 3 years and then it took another 11 months just to get the judgment. When the judgment was finally rendered we were back in court again, as it was full of factual errors, adding mistakes, and it even failed to document the portion of the judgment we had stipulated to at the outset of trial. What an expensive and exhausting mess.
Trust me, I wanted to mediate but it only takes one to litigate, so my heart goes out to you if you have an uncooperative spouse. You may be in this for the long haul.
For the more reasonable among you—and honestly I know that is most of you—trust me, the courts should really be seen as an option of last resort. It will cost your family tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate. The stress alone has broken many, not to mention the effect it can have on parenting. It is next to impossible to be fully present for children when former spouses are embroiled in a battle with one another. We only get to truly parent our children in a day to day way for about 18 years. Ask yourself: what is the real cost of giving up several of my parenting years as a stressed out, emotionally and financially exhausted parent?
I can only hope the delays couples will be facing will motivate them to at least try mediation. I mediate over 60 divorce cases a year, and yes a few fall out of mediation, but even those few usually have only a few matters left to resolve. Most are resolved within 4-6 months.
My hope for you? You will not be one of those people I meet at a gatherings who asks, “So what do you do?” and when I say, “I’m a divorce mediator,” they respond, “Oh my goodness! I wish I had known you ___ number of years ago!” before launching into their sad divorce story. Leave strong, not broke and broken.
Laura McGee is a non-practicing attorney and highly sought after mediator with over 300 hours of training as a mediator. She offers mediation services to couples throughout San Diego County. You can reach out to her for a complimentary consultation to learn more.