Access to Florida courts during the COVID-19 pandemic
The threat of COVID-19 has put everyday life on pause for many Americans. Most recently, it’s started to affect both state and federal courts across the country.
According to the National Center for State Courts, 19 states, including Florida (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) are restricting or suspending in-person court proceedings.
For Floridians going through a divorce (or other family law proceeding), this is likely the last thing they want to hear. However, spouses may be able to continue court proceedings by telephone, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or another electronic communication method.
Florida Supreme Court reaction
Not surprisingly, as social distancing and community spread are now a primary concern and Florida is in an official state of emergency, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady ordered suspension of jury trials statewide beginning March 16. The Supreme Court announced that further orders are coming to extend deadlines so it is not known how long the suspension will last.
The Chief Justice ordered the chief judges of the judicial circuits across the state to plan and mitigate public danger from the coronavirus. For example, the order suspends any previous legal limits on the use of “remote electronic means” to conduct court proceedings and chief judges may use equipment during this time to allow remote electronic proceedings.
Local restrictions in Broward County courts
In Broward County’s Seventeenth Judicial District, Chief Judge Jack Tuter on March 13 ordered no new jury trials for two weeks. No public access at all will be allowed during that time at any of the four courthouses in the district. There are narrow exceptions, including people seeking protective injunctions against domestic violence.
The Seventeenth Judicial District Court website has a COVID-19 page that is continuously updated with further developments. It would not be surprising for the courthouse ban to be extended. In addition, given the Supreme Court’s support of conducting court proceedings during this time via remote electronic means, it is likely that this may become an option for divorce and other family law proceedings.
Many Florida couples may not think that digital divorce hearings would be a good option. However, in times of uncertainty, it may be a good solution for some.