Family court “emergencies” in the COVID-19 era

In a pair of March 18, 2020 orders, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty cancelled all family court terms of court through May 1, 2020, and limited family court proceedings to “emergency matters.” I hear from other attorneys that, with this knowledge, some parents have begun refusing visitation or refusing to return the child to the custodial parent. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, I may have considered such actions to merit emergency relief–especially a refusal to return to the child to the custodial parent. Now, I’m pretty sure these actions don’t require emergency relief.

Litigants need to realize and attorneys need to consider that every court hearing requires attorneys, judges, litigants, necessary witnesses, and court personnel [deputies, bailiffs, court reporters] to gather together in a courtroom. This breech of social distancing requires substantial justification. Addressing the concerns raised when a child is abandoned by her caregiver, a parent incarcerated on a child support bench warrant, a parent abuses opiates with a child in his care, or a juvenile is charged with a violent crime, likely merit this breech. A parent simply refusing to return the child (or refusing visitation), or using marijuana in the child’s presence, likely doesn’t justify putting so many folks at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. With COVID-19 causing income loss for many, I suspect soon folks will be out of compliance with support obligations. I doubt failure to receive support merits emergency relief either.

That folks will use this knowledge of limited court access to violate family court orders is unfortunate. I suspect the family courts will ultimately come down very hard on parents or spouses who violated court orders simply because they knew the other party could not access the court system. The future use of criminal contempt sanctions to punish this behavior is completely appropriate.

But the COVID-19 era requires a different understanding of “emergency matters.” When an attorney seeks such emergency relief, that attorney is asking numerous folks to jeopardize their health and the public health to address the dispute. That’s something I’m not willing to do over mere visitation/custodial interference or failure to pay support.

Put Mr. Forman’s experience, knowledge, and dedication to your service for any of your South Carolina family law needs.

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