Access to courts, the NC judicial system amid COVID-19
Many court operations in North Carolina have been modified and are operating at reduced capacity or remotely given the ongoing presence of COVID-19. Jury trials have been postponed until Oct. 1.Posted — Updated
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every nation across the globe, forcing people to work or learn remotely and impacting our everyday way of life. Many court operations, for example, have been modified and are operating with reduced capacity or remotely.
"Only people with business at the courthouse will be allowed to enter. Masks or face coverings are required. Filings are encouraged to be mailed and will be treated as timely if received by mail within five days of the due date. You may be able to handle your ticket or citation through our online services," stated the North Carolina courts government website.
According to a local attorney, these adjustments should not deter you from pursuing legal recourse should you need to do so.
"Our physical and virtual doors have remained open throughout the pandemic. While this disease is affecting a lot of people and we want to be as safe as possible, people are still seeking justice and advocates during this time," said Matthew Bissette, an associate attorney at Whitley Law Firm in Raleigh. "Civil cases are still being brought forward and you are still able to file a lawsuit, but a lot of the process has now been taken out of the courtroom."
Bissette explained lawsuits are being filed in the mail, filed motions on discovery are being heard by judges through video conferencing tools, and depositions are also being done remotely. Even mediation at Whitley Law Firm is happening remotely, unless requested by the client to be done in person — then these meetings are held in a large conference room where everyone is wearing masks, seated spaced apart from one another.
While some legal proceedings are moving ahead, jury trials in both civil and criminal cases in North Carolina however, have been put on hold until Oct. 1.
On Aug. 24 Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued an order extending and modifying several emergency directives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order modifies and extends two directives in reference to court restrictions and operations, and extends several other emergency directives:
- Hearings and other court proceedings are allowed to be conducted remotely using audio or video conferencing
- Senior resident superior court judges must submit plans for the resumption of jury trials no later than Sept. 30
- Courthouse access may be restricted to those who have business to conduct in the building
- Clerks of superior court are required to post a notice at the entrance to every court facility in their county instructing any person who has potentially been exposed to COVID-19 to not enter the courthouse
"These emergency directives are crucial to ensuring that our court system continues to administer justice while protecting the health and safety of court officials, court personnel, and the public," said Chief Justice Beasley in a N.C. Judicial Branch press release.
Additionally, documents that typically require a notary can be submitted with a signed statement under penalty of perjury, certain documents can be served to another party through email, magistrates and clerks may operate under appointment-only restrictions for marriages and public records requests, and hearings can be done through teleconference. Once courts reopen they must allow for social distancing when scheduling cases.
"We've really adapted," said Bissette. "Just because there's no jury trials before October 1st doesn't mean that we are not going after these cases and litigating these cases. These orders haven't really delayed civil cases because we're still able to do so many things remotely — all the depositions, hearings, and lawsuit filing. Everything is going forward because we were so quick to adapt to the remote settings. Judges, plaintiff lawyers and defense lawyers, everybody is participating in this new reality for the time being and we're trying to do it as efficiently as possible."
People with court business, legal matters, or concerns about their case are encouraged to check their county's information for changes to hours of operations, remote hearings, and other announcements.
"It's important to note that we're doing everything we can given these current circumstances to continue litigating on clients' behalf," said Bissette. "People still have access to the legal system, things just look a little different right now."
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