Our law office is still open for business but my staff and I are almost exclusively working from home. My office was ahead of the game in that we already had our entire practice on the cloud. That makes it very easy to transition to a home office setting and continue to be up and running as if we were physically in the office. I go to my office once a week to check the mail and scan documents. We are continuing to set up appointments using the phone, Facetime, Skype, and Zoom.
We’ve been taking these precautions for the past couple of weeks with very few hitches. Everyone has been very understanding of the situation. For a while now, we’ve been accepting credit card payments and direct bank transfers for potential clients to pay consult fees or invoices online, so that has not been an issue. In terms of the status of the courts right now, New York courts are only operating on essential filings and hearings in my field, which is divorce and family court. The only issues that Family Court is accommodating right now are emergency filings, initial arraignments for juvenile delinquency, child protective proceedings, and essential filings, such as orders of protection.
It can be unclear what constitutes an “emergency filing” but I’m advising my clients that it includes only issues where the life or health of a child is at stake or where a non-custodial parent is withholding access to a child from a custodial parent. As a general rule, it does not mean mere deprivation of visitation rights. I am facing that issue in more than a few of my cases, where the custodial parent is declining to arrange for a visitation during these times. We’re trying, as best as we can, to work things out informally because the courts may or may not accept that as an emergency filing. Persons with Divorce or Family Court cases are advised to consult the NYS Court’s website (http://www.nycourts.gov/index.shtml) on a daily basis for updates on the courts’ status.
My understanding is that they may very well be screening cases, even at the courthouse door, to determine whether there is a dire enough emergency to even allow you into the building to file a case. I have advised all of my clients to weather this storm, if possible, and know that any deprivation of access is a specific factor that a judge can consider against a custodial parent later in an overall custody determination. Court orders of visitation are still in effect in New York State. I have distributed materials on this to both clients and attorneys. Foster care visitation is still taking place, except in certain very specific circumstances, which were outlined in policy memorandums that were distributed to child welfare agencies.
Unless the child or adult is showing concerning symptoms, safeguards can be put in place – such as wearing masks and washing hands. In the foster care context, even during these times of the Coronavirus pandemic, visits should still take place. According to a child welfare memorandum, in-person visits should be held if advance screening protocol has confirmed that no one attending the visit is currently exhibiting any symptoms of Covid-19, nor has been asked to self-quarantine, and attendees are not high risk for Covid-19. High risk means being over 60 years old or having chronic health conditions, such as lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, or a weakened immune system.
If there is a court order of visitation in place, it has not been modified. The only person who can modify a court order is a Judge. If a Judge has not modified a court order for visitation, it is not up to the custodial parent to decide whether to adhere to it or not. As long as appropriate safeguards are in place, those orders should be followed and if they’re not, I’ve been advising my non-custodial parent clients to try to work it out. If necessary, for now, set up video chat visits between yourself and the children. If you believe that there is a dire emergency where you want to get into court, contact your attorney and let them know. However, the court may or may not allow that application and you may end up spending thousands of dollars to have your attorney go with you to court, only to be turned away at the courthouse door.
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