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The novel Coronavirus COVID-19 has caused closures and stay-at-home directives across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, even the courts have been affected, restricting in-person hearings to only the most essential services. What do those closures mean for your case? Will your hearing be cancelled because of COVID-19?
On March 16, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a novel order in response to a novel virus. It directed that all Pennsylvania courts would be generally closed to the public from March 19 through April 3. Two subsequent orders extended this closure through April 30, 2020. With the exception of a specific list of emergency and constitutionally mandated services, the Supreme Court cancelled all hearings, status conferences, and other court events until rescheduled by the presiding judge. So, the short answer to whether your hearing be cancelled is: if it was scheduled for April, it already has been.
The court’s order also directed judges across the state to use “advanced communication technology” like video conferencing or telephonic hearings to allow their cases to move forward. You will not need to appear at the courthouse for your case management conference, pretrial conference, diversionary program, or motion hearing. However, you may be required to participate from home instead.
The Supreme Court’s order also carved out an exception to the COVID-19 shutdown order for “essential functions”. This means in-person hearings will continue on certain constitutionally protected and emergency issues. At the District Court level, that includes:
Courts of Common Pleas must continue to hold hearings on:
Generally speaking, these lists boil down to criminal hearings to keep people out of jail prior to conviction, protections against abuse, and emergency health and safety issues that will not wait until the courts can open again.
Since criminal hearings show up so often on the list of essential functions, you might think that it is business as usual in the criminal courts. However, all of the pretrial conferences that prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys use to exchange evidence, negotiate plea deals, and work through criminal cases are on hold until April 30, or until each particular court adopts a telephone or video conference hearing procedure. That means there are now long delays in the trial process. If you have not been able to pay bail and secure your release, you may be in jail much longer than you normally would before your case ever goes to trial.
The Pennsylvania courts are still holding hearings on requests for bail, though. Your criminal defense attorney may be able to request that the court allow your release if you are able to put forth enough money to ensure you will come back for trial. However, even then, the process of being released on bail is not as smooth as it once was, so pretrial defendants are finding themselves waiting longer to go home.
When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court cancelled all hearings but a select few because of COVID-19, it put every personal injury lawsuit and family law matter on pause. You can still file new petitions and complaints to protect your rights and meet your filing deadlines, but they will not be heard in a courtroom before a judge until after April 30.
Just like in criminal cases, judges and court staff are working on electronic hearing procedures to keep cases moving forward. However, now more than ever, parties should consider mediation, arbitration, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution to get their cases resolved faster, and keep from jostling for position with all the other pending cases once the courts finally reopen.
At Berman & Associates, we want to protect your health and your rights. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys, personal injury lawyers, and family court attorneys are working hard from home to make sure our clients’ needs are met during the Coronavirus shutdown. We welcome you to contact us to schedule a virtual consultation with an attorney who can help you preserve your rights and keep your case on track.
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