Maryland Divorce Cases and the Coronavirus

Maryland Divorce Cases an…

The global coronavirus pandemic is something the world has not seen in more than a century. If you look at it that way, maybe it makes sense that it is causing unprecedented disruption in Maryland, throughout the country, and across the globe. For people who are going through a divorce, are involved in a child custody dispute, or have another family law matter pending in a Maryland court, this is a very difficult time.

Governors, mayors, and other officials have issued “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders, based on the principle that “social distancing” will slow the spread of the virus and help hospitals, doctors, and others help those who are sick. Maryland’s governor has issued this kind of order, resulting in many businesses remaining closed for the time being. Maryland’s courts are also closed, except for certain matters. Under the current order, court closures will continue until June 5, 2020. Here is what you should know about current court schedules and procedures.

Please note that new developments arise in this crisis almost every day. The information presented in this post is current and accurate as of its date of publication. A family attorney can advise you of changes and new developments since this date.

Maryland’s Stay-at-Home Order

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has issued multiple executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 30, 2020, he issued an order that includes the following:

  • Ordering Maryland residents to stay at home except when engaging in “Essential Activities”;
  • Prohibiting large gatherings of people;
  • Closing businesses deemed “non-essential”; and
  • Restricting the operations of other businesses.

“Essential Activities,” as defined by the order, include “traveling to and from a federal, State, or local government building for a necessary purpose.” This could include going to court or going to see an attorney, subject to other orders that directly affect the courts.

Lawyers Are “Essential” Businesses

The governor’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued interpretive guidance regarding businesses that can remain open in “federal critical infrastructure sectors.” Lawyers and law firms are among the businesses that may stay open, as part of the “government facilities sector.”

Court Closures in Maryland

The governor cannot order the courts to close, because Maryland’s constitution states that “the Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers of Government [are]...separate and distinct from each other.” Authority over state courts, which includes the district courts that hear most family law matters, rests with the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

The Court of Appeals has issued several administrative orders related to COVID-19. It has authorized remote hearings whenever possible, meaning hearings in which some or all of the parties use electronic technologies like videoconferencing. It has closed all circuit courts and district courts for most proceedings as of March 17, 2020, with some exceptions. All hearings scheduled for March 16 or later have been postponed. The court has also suspended deadlines for new cases and in pending cases that fall after March 17. The courts are to remain closed, and all deadlines suspended, until June 5, or further order of the court.

“Emergency” Family Law Matters

The most recent order from the Court of Appeals addressing court closures was issued on April 14. Courts are “restricted to emergency operations,” although the order makes some exceptions.

Courts may still consider matters that do not require a hearing. That said, since most court functions are essentially on hold, matters that are not deemed “emergencies” will almost certainly have to wait.

In the context of family law cases, petitions for protective orders based on domestic violence are considered “emergencies” and may continue to be heard by Maryland district courts. Whenever possible, the Court of Appeals has directed district courts to conduct hearings remotely.

The administrative judge of each court may decide if any of the following types of cases constitute an “emergency,” which means that they would get a hearing:

  • Existing domestic violence protective orders;
  • Contempt motions related to protective orders; and
  • “Family law emergencies.”

The order does not define the term “family law emergencies,” but it offers “time urgent matters related to special juvenile immigrant status” as an example. It may also include certain issues related to child custody. If you have an issue that you believe requires a court’s attention right away, you should speak to a family lawyer about petitioning the court.

Family law attorney Dana Whitten represents clients in most Maryland counties, helping them in cases involving divorce, child support, child custody, and other matters. Our Rockville office is conveniently located near the Montgomery County courthouse. We invite you to contact us through our online contact form, or give us a call at (301) 762-2528 to schedule a consultation. We look forward to working with you on your case.