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It seems as if COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of life: working, going to school, traveling, entertainment, worship services, and even how we get along at home. The pandemic has also made it harder to get things we want — from toilet paper in 2020 to all kinds of goods and services now. One of the things that is taking longer for many people is getting a court date for their divorce or family law court matter.
There are a number of reasons for the delays. One is that the pandemic caused court and office closures for months. It was harder for attorneys to meet with clients and each other, and court cases that were already on the docket had to have hearings delayed. A backlog quickly arose, which most states and many countries are still contending with.
Another factor was the stress the pandemic put on families, leading to an increase in family law cases. Partners in a struggling marriage may be able to limp along for a while. But add into the mix job loss, financial worries, health fears, constant togetherness, and dealing with cooped-up kids 24/7, and the stress may quickly become too much.
As a result, we are witnessing a perfect storm of increased need for court services and a backlog from months of limited availability. It’s not unique to Minnesota, or even to the United States. But that’s cold comfort when family law court delays disrupt your life.
You have a divorce, custody issue, or other family law dispute. You want it resolved. But you can’t get into court for weeks. What can you do? The answer depends on the nature and urgency of your dispute.
If your situation is not an emergency, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options can help you resolve your dispute largely, or completely, outside of court. That means you will not need to wait for a hearing date or appear in court to argue your case.
One of the best known ADR methods is mediation. In mediation, you and your spouse or co-parent meet with a neutral third party, the mediator, who helps to facilitate an agreement. Unlike a judge, the mediator does not make a ruling in your case, but tries to guide you and the other party toward a settlement that works for you both.
There are different types of mediation. In facilitative mediation, the mediator helps the parties clarify their goals and needs and brainstorm solutions that might work for everyone. In evaluative mediation, the mediator is an expert in the subject matter of the dispute. While he or she doesn’t decide the outcome, an evaluative mediator helps the parties understand how a judge might rule in their case. That knowledge can often kick-start a settlement. While a judge will still have to sign off on a Judgment and Decree based on a mediated agreement in order to make the agreement binding on the parties, it doesn’t require a trial.
Reaching agreement in a family law dispute through mediation is usually quicker than going to court, and that was true even before the pandemic. In addition, mediating a family law dispute is typically less costly and more amicable than litigating through the courts.
Family mediators can help resolve issues in a divorce, custody, or parenting time matter. Another option for resolving parenting disputes, if both parents are willing, is to work with a private parenting consultant. Parenting consultants can get involved much more quickly on issues that are problematic, but that may or may not be worth seeking a court hearing on.
Of course, sometimes a situation is so urgent, and the other party so uncooperative, that you need a court to make a binding decision immediately. Those situations usually involve the risk of harm to one of the parties, or a child, unless the court takes quick action. The delay of the usual court process would cause harm that could not be easily reversed, if it could be reversed at all.
An emergency hearing might be necessary in a case where:
As a general rule, courts make it a priority to give all parties involved in a case the opportunity to participate, which means allowing time to notify all parties. Consequently, courts are reluctant to grant emergency hearings unless the issue is a true emergency that must be addressed immediately and cannot wait.
Unfortunately, the general increase in courts’ caseloads may make it more difficult for spouses or parents to get even emergency hearings. In COVID times, it is more important than ever to be able to show facts that justify an emergency hearing and the urgency of the need for court involvement. Fortunately, most courts have the capability of holding remote hearings, which can somewhat ease the burden of docket backlogs.
If you have an urgent matter that you need to get before the court, your best bet is to work with an experienced family law attorney who can help you demonstrate the need for an emergency, expedited, or ex parte hearing. If you have questions about how to get an emergency custody hearing or other urgent hearing, please contact Mundahl Law for a consultation.