It’s been more than three months since the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down Philadelphia’s courts, including Family Court, which handles protection-from-abuse orders and all cases involving juveniles. That closure has as many as 20,000 cases involving parents, kids, and domestic violence victims, as many as 90% of them without lawyers, in confusion — with people frequently showing up for scheduled hearings only to find the courthouse doors locked.
Now, the Philadelphia Bar Association has taken the unusual step of drafting a resolution urging Family Court’s domestic relations division to do better.
“The fair administration of justice, even in the time of a pandemic, cannot be infringed upon,” the resolution notes, citing the court’s failure to establish an e-filing system, to notify people of canceled hearings, or even to take the basic steps of updating its outgoing phone message or providing clear information on its website.
The resolution, an undated copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, has not yet been posted by the Bar Association.
Martin O’Rourke, a spokesperson for Family Court, said court leadership was scheduled to meet with the representatives of the Bar Association’s family law section Friday morning to address their concerns.
“Although Family Court has implemented various protocols to provide remote access for both counsel and self-represented litigants, we clearly are hampered in this unprecedented crisis by not having electronic filing,” he said in an email.
Some of the requested actions had already been taken, according to A. Michael Snyder, chancellor of the Bar Association. He said court leaders had affirmed their commitment to resolving the issues, though he could not provide specifics. “Substantively, what came from it was a great deal of cooperation,” he said.
“Litigants and counsel have received as little as 30 minutes’ notice for a rescheduled proceeding,” the resolution says. In other cases, it says, attorneys were not notified at all.
Parents who already had to wait for custody hearings scheduled six or 12 months in advance have had those hearings canceled, it says, and “they have not been provided with any information regarding how and when these proceedings will be rescheduled.” And, those parents whose only visitation with their children was at the courthouse nursery have been given no instructions for alternative visitation options, or even whether they have a right to continue visits via video.