A month and a half ago, the Superior Court closed its doors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It deemed every day a court holiday, automatically extending filing deadlines until the court reopened - which, at that point, the judges thought might be the end of April.
It seems that was too optimistic.
Last week,on the eve of reopening, the court extended the shutdown and the deadline“holiday.” Now the court’s scheduled to reopen on May 26th, the day after Memorial Day. According to a press release from presiding Judge Lorna Alksne,the court has started exploring technological solutions to provide services remotely. And indeed they’ve been doing some business remotely during the shutdown, including:
Non-emergency civil matters are still on hold. All civil hearing dates since the middle of March have been vacated. When the courthouse reopens, an overwhelming number of hearings - more than 6,400 civil hearings and 1,900 small claims hearings, by one count - need to be rescheduled.
After the doors open again, it won’t be the same courthouse as it was before the pandemic.
For example, to maintain social distancing, only two people will be allowed in a courthouse elevator at the same time. In a building with 22 floors, just getting upstairs will take a while. Social distancing in cramped courtrooms will postpone jury trials for months, given the current size of the jury boxes. These and other social distancing measures will make post-pandemic life in the courthouse frustrating for those caught unawares.
Any silver linings? A few. Before the pandemic, California’s courts were a technological time capsule, relying heavily on paper filings, wet ink signatures, in-person communication, and fax machines. Necessity is the mother of invention, though,and the need for social distancing is waking the court up to its deficiencies.The court is expected to adopt a number of improvements in the “new normal”:
· Instead of phoning the clerk, parties will be able to schedule civil hearings using the internet
· Video conferencing (Zoom or Microsoft Teams) will supplant in-person hearings and conferences in civil and criminal cases
· Face-to-face transactions previously processed at the clerk’s office will be conducted online
· The public can observe court hearings online without physically showing up to the courthouse
· Some courthouse staff will be able to work remotely
The courthouse is making physical changes, too. Visitors will see plexiglass screens, hand sanitizer stations, and signs reminding people to stay six feet away from each other.
Despite the closure, work continues - at the courthouse and in law firms like ours. During the shutdown, civil lawyers have tried to file more than 7,400 documents electronically. Since the court is on “holiday” status, the documents have been shunted into an electronic queue, and when the court reopens, it will start processing documents in the order in which they were received. May 26th will be a busy day.
The court says the May 26th date isn’t a total reopening, however, but just the first phase. The phased reopening will continue as the court adapts its practices to comply with COVID-19 mitigation requirements.
Our firm is keeping abreast of new developments and will update our clients with new information as it’s released. If you have questions, feel free to get in touch with our office.