GDC Practice in the Time of Covid-19

Angela M. London
August 4th, 2020
By: Angela M. London

The legal profession, like many other industries, has experienced significant upheaval as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Since mid-March, many lawyers and law firms have utilized work from home policies to ensure that attorneys and staff stay productive and meet their obligations to clients. However the initial uncertainty of the coronavirus resulted in the closure of courthouses to the public throughout the Commonwealth.

According to the Supreme Court of Virginia, from March 16, 2020, with the issuance of the Court’s first COVID Order, to May 1, 2020, the General District Courts of Virginia continued approximately 413,000 cases to a later date. This has created a significant backlog that these courts must now work through.

As courthouses begin to reopen to the public and hold non-emergency hearings, the legal profession is grappling with how to operate in a socially distant world. Under current CDC and Virginia Department of Health (“VDH”) guidelines, individuals going out in public are advised to wear a mask at all times, maintain a six foot distance from others, wash their hands frequently, and avoid touching their faces. Prior to the pandemic and the institution of social distancing guidelines, it was not unheard of for dockets in the larger jurisdictions like Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun to have over one hundred cases on their daily dockets, with as many litigants appearing before the court to set a trial date or have their motion heard. While many jurisdictions have decreased the number of matters on their daily dockets, following these guidelines is especially important in general district court as the courtrooms tend to be smaller than circuit court, and have a greater number of litigants on daily basis.

To combat the spread of coronavirus, many jurisdictions in Virginia have adopted the protocol promulgated by the CDC and the VDH. If you are feeling ill, have experienced any coronavirus symptoms in the last 14 days, or answer in the affirmative to any of the covid-19 screening question posed by the deputies at the courthouse doors, you will be prohibited from entering the courthouse. Many jurisdictions require a face mask, however enforcement of this requirement varies by jurisdiction. In some courthouses, arrows on the floors guide individuals to walk in one direction only, tamping down on the number of individuals crossing paths in confined spaces. Laminated signs read “SIT HERE” and tape on the tops of benches guide parties to sit in locations which ensure that they are at least six feet apart. Sit in the wrong spot, and a deputy may politely ask you to move.

In addition to these protocols, Fairfax and Prince William have instituted staggered docket times, thereby limiting the number of cases and individuals allowed to be present in the court room at any given time. Prince William requires parties to wait outside until their name is called.

Some jurisdictions are providing litigants with alternatives to in-person appearances. Fairfax, Henrico, and Loudoun are permitting parties to appear by telephone or video for hearings and in certain circumstances, for trials. Fairfax requires you to submit a “Motion for Remote Hearing” form. Fairfax is also permitting the electronic filing of a number of items. A complete list of permitted filings is available on its website. Henrico County requires parties to make requests to appear by Webex or Telephone at least 72 hours in advance of their scheduled hearing, through the appropriate clerk’s office. In Loudoun, you need to contact the clerk’s office to request a hearing via telephone or video conference. Loudoun is also temporarily allowing parties to fax filings for existing cases.

As general district courts continue to adapt to the new normal, we anticipate that those with the technology to do so will continue to expand remote litigation options. If you are unsure about whether the jurisdiction you have a scheduled appearance in is offering in-person appearance alternatives, contacting the clerk’s office in advance of your appearance is recommended.

Should you find yourself needing to appear in person, best practice is to bring a mask, hand sanitizer, and try not to enter the courthouse until 15 minutes prior to your hearing. While court can be an intimidating experience, it is best to only bring your witnesses to court, and leave family and friends who have offered to come as emotional support at home. These are four little things that everyone can do to protect themselves, their clients, and the public, and lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Disclaimer

This blog and the information provided has been prepared by Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath & Judkins, P.C. (“BMHJ”) for information purposes only and is not intended nor to be construed as legal advice. This blog may contain the opinions of the members and associates of this firm on various legal issues and is not legal advice. Read More