State and local governments in Missouri began easing COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions this week, and St. Louis City and County announced plans to do so later in the month. The Missouri Supreme Court has now released operational directives for the gradual reopening of courthouses and resumption of court activities across the state. What does this mean for Family Court matters?
The exact timing for court reopenings will vary from one court jurisdiction to another. These new directives are set to take effect on May 16 at the earliest, but the phased reopening in each jurisdiction will depend upon the health conditions of the local community. Courthouses will remain closed to all but emergency in-person hearings under the existing court order dated March 16 until they are able to meet the following criteria:
1. No confirmed COVID-19 cases in the court facility within a 14-day period
2. Local stay-at-home orders have been rescinded or relaxed to permit group gatherings
3. Improvement in COVID-19 health conditions in the community over 14 days
4. Consultation with local health officials
5. Consultation with local judiciary partners such as children’s division personnel, juvenile officers, members of the local bar, prosecutors and public defenders, law enforcement and probation and parole.
If local health conditions show improvement, the order states “the presiding judge or chief judge may consider…gradually resuming and adapting previously suspended court activities.”
The reopening directive calls for operating phases; each phase must be in effect for 14 days before moving on to the next. If conditions worsen or if there is a confirmed COVID-19 case in the court facility, the presiding judge may immediately halt or limit court activities.
In Phase One, the most urgent cases would be heard first, and extensive health precautions are recommended. These may include but are not limited to:
- requiring face masks for all parties
- social distancing rules taking measures to ensure proper spacing
- limiting courtroom occupancy to 10 people
- closure of break rooms
- increased sanitation for facilities and access to hand sanitizer
- notices barring anyone with a fever or a positive COVID-19 diagnosis from entering the courthouse
- Screening measures such as temperature checks and questions for everyone wishing to enter the courthouse
- Suspension of non-essential travel by court employees and allowing many to continue working from home or in staggered shifts to limit contact.
In addition, the Missouri Supreme Court encourages each local court to continue using teleconferencing and video conferencing for meetings and hearings, particularly for people who are the most vulnerable to potential coronavirus infection, such as the elderly and those with existing health conditions.
Court may move to Phase Two after two weeks and after ensuring that community health conditions are continuing to improve. Most Phase One restrictions would remain in place, but judges could increase the number of court proceedings, and allow courtroom occupancy up to 25 people at a time. In Phase Three, larger courthouse venues and common areas could again be used while maintaining social distancing protocols, and normal staffing schedules may resume.
There is still much uncertainty, and so for now, we can expect that many Family Court matters will continue to be delayed. As health conditions improve, however, these directives provide a framework for moving forward in the months ahead. You can read the full announcement here.
All of us here at Raza & Jones, LLC, understand this is a challenging time for our clients. As a family law firm, under St. Louis County’s Order pertaining to COVID-19 we are considered an essential business, and we remain open and available to all our clients. The entire firm is working remotely, using our Zoom account to meet with clients or speaking by telephone. We are committed to delivering the same high standard of compassionate, effective representation we’re known for, in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.
With a combined 30 years in family law, the attorneys at Raza & Jones, LLC, will provide the legal guidance you need. For questions, or to schedule a confidential consultation, call 314-449-8830.