Over the past two weeks, we have seen the widespread effect of COVID-19 sweep across nations, killing thousands along its path – many healthcare experts comparing it to the SARS outbreak in 2003; the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Initially, while there were a few detected cases in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh residents waited for the dreaded moment the virus would reach its streets. According to the County Health Department, there are currently six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County, but the County believes there could be many more cases. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other county officials have called for non-essential businesses to close for the next two weeks effective Monday, March 16, 2020. Among the list of non-essential businesses are child care centers, gyms, nail salons, casinos, concert venues, theaters, social clubs, and more. Governor Wolf ordered a state-wide shutdown, similar to preventative measures taken in states, such as New York, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut, and California. While these measures may not prevent the widespread of COVID-19 from occurring, they may delay the spread of the virus. Clients and attorneys alike practicing in Allegheny, Washington, Greene, Beaver, and Somerset County are now in limbo regarding their scheduled court hearings and the ability of the judicial system to provide appropriate safety measures amid this crisis.
In response to COVID-19, the Allegheny County – Family Division will be operating at a limited capacity. Effective March 16, 2020, pursuant to President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark’s Order, support conferences, custody hearings; equitable distribution hearings, where a Judge determines how marital assets will be divided; and, divorce hearings are postponed. The Generations program, which is a mandatory two-step program for individuals involved in the Allegheny Family Court system, has been canceled. Parties should expect to receive new scheduling orders for their education seminar and mediation sessions as they become available. If you are involved in a juvenile delinquency case, related to children between the ages of 10 and 17 years of age who have been charged with committing crimes, you should appear for all juvenile delinquency matters scheduled before the Court, unless you are notified otherwise. If you are involved in a Child Protection or Dependency case, which involves children you are or has been abused by parents, you should appear for all juvenile dependency matters, unless otherwise notified. If you believe you have a matter that needs to be addressed immediately, the Court will be hearing emergency motions.
Additionally, the Family Division will hold bench warrant hearings as planned. Furthermore, if you live in Pittsburgh and are in reasonable fear of immediate and serious physical harm, you may appear in Family Division, located at 440 Ross Street, Pittsburgh PA, 15219, and file for Protection from Abuse. Here at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, we understand this may be very difficult times for victims who are quarantined with their abusers during these times, please consider reaching out to our office for assistance.
For individuals with Family Court matters in Greene County, all scheduled court hearings through March 23, 2020, are continued. Motions Court on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, and Monday, March 23, 2020, will take place as scheduled. Emergency proceedings will be heard on an as-needed basis.
For individuals with Family Court matters in Washington County, the Court will be reducing its functions over the next two (2) weeks to determine if other emergency measures are/will be necessary. Motions court will be handled by telephone or e-mail if consented to. Parties are to contact the Judge’s chambers for instructions.
While COVID-19 has immediate effects on our judiciary system, there are still many unknowns regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19 that we must grapple with, such as, how the loss of your job or being temporarily laid off due to COVID-19 may affect child support. Will receiving unemployment during the outbreak, permit you to suspend your child support payments? Are parents expected to maintain their custody orders given the outbreak? What we do know, however, is that Family Courts will have to deal with the profound effect this virus will cause. You should anticipate that the Family Courts will be flooded when they re-open their doors for regular business. Family law clients will need to be patient with the number of cases that will need to be rescheduled. We also predict that there will be an influx of Contempt cases amid this outbreak of clients violating orders.
We ask that clients continue to monitor local news for further cancellations to hearings and court closures and look forward to servicing you as best as we can.