Chief Justice Beasley’s COVID-19 Task Force and the Practice of Family Law


By Wade Harrison

These are tough times. We have been forced to deal with the uncertainty and disruption surrounding this public health threat. Some of us have lost a loved one without the opportunity to communicate with them or publicly celebrate their lives. We deal with our clients’ stress and the financial stress this has caused. The Chief Justice issued emergency orders necessary to protect our health and safety and that of our clients and court personnel. Our practices have slowed to a crawl, and we are nostalgic about interminable calendar calls because of a bat bite in China. What is next?

Chief Justice Beasley appointed a Task Force to recommend how and when she should ramp up operations in the North Carolina Judicial Branch during this pandemic. She appointed me to represent the family lawyers. Prior to accepting this job, I secured a pledge for assistance from the leadership of the Family Law Section and the North Carolina Chapter of the AAML. I need your help to represent you effectively. Here is how I am representing you and how the Task Force operates.

The Task Force initially convened on Friday May 1. At that meeting, I was asked to present your position regarding the suspension of filing deadlines, priorities for case disposition and how the courts may meet those priorities in this and the future environment. With a great deal of help, I was able to present the Task Force with the attached vetted memorandum prior to the meeting. I welcome your thoughts about it. The work of the Task Force is just beginning though I have learned it demands our immediate attention.

No family lawyer who communicated with me supported a blanket extension of deadlines. Everyone opposed it. The moderator gave time to explain how the suspension of responsibility for pleading or responding has detrimentally impacted our clients and our ability to help them. After an hour and forty minutes of discussion, I was honored to be recognized to move that the Task Force recommend to the Chief Justice that with few exceptions not related to Family law, the suspension of deadlines no longer be in place after June 1. I have attached the formal recommendation which passed overwhelmingly at the meeting and was overwhelmingly ratified by electronic vote. Members of the Task Force who do not practice family law have a better understanding of the importance of our practice.

This pandemic has brought the District Court’s challenges into focus. It is unrealistic to think that our government will fund the number of qualified people, adequate spaces and the court time needed to hear and timely resolve family law issues during this pandemic. Judges, court administrators and lawyers must explore new ways of dealing with family law issues that are fair, client centric, efficient and safe.

Ultimately the District Courts are asked to help solve every new social problem, often, with no additional resources. The COVID-19 crisis is no different. It will be difficult to configure and sanitize courthouses to accommodate social distancing without scheduling fewer hearings in court. Lawyers, judges, clerks, local government and law enforcement officials will meet these new challenges by making do with what we have. District Courts must develop and use new technological and procedural tools to make time for matters that require judges, lawyers and litigants to be in court in person or remotely at the same time. In addition to mediation in child custody and equitable distribution matters, these tools include eliminating court appearances for uncontested matters, using remote hearings for calendar calls and temporary hearings and using reference and mandatory arbitration to resolve complex time-consuming matters and logjam issues. The technology that permits courts to conduct remote evidentiary proceedings is also available for arbitration/reference. Judges can use these tools to give lawyers the opportunity to provide their clients with safe, fair, cost effective and expedient hearings with resolutions binding on all parties subject to the approval of the court without overextending court resources.

I value the information you are willing to share to help me discern and advocate for the best way forward for family lawyers and our clients during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The Chief Justice is responsible for managing the response of the Judicial Branch to the COVID-19 pandemic. The judicial branch includes all courts, all trial and appellate divisions, all court administrators, Clerks of Court, District Attorneys, Public Defenders and all other court personnel. The Task Force members generally represent these groups. The AOC, School of Government and National Center for State Courts as well as public health experts support the Task Force’s work. Members of the Task Force are organized into work groups with communication ties to work groups in the Judicial Conferences and others involved in the courts including but not limited to Clerks of Court, trial court administrators and representatives of the Civil and Criminal Bar. The COVID-19 Task Force is to make informed recommendations to help Chief Justice Beasley use her emergency authority to increase court operations to perform the constitutional and legally prescribed functions of the Judicial Branch consistent with the health and safety of those of us who work there and those whom we represent. Meetings are broadcast in real time.

Finally, we are all in this together. Please consider the court personnel who are keeping courthouses open across the state without the services of staff who are particularly susceptible to serious injury or death from the COVID-19 virus. The Clerks supported our position not to extend most deadlines past June 1. It will help the clerk’s offices if we will file pleadings and other papers by mail instead of going into the courthouse. It will also help if we file everything we can before the June 1 deadline to prevent a crush of last minute in person filings.

Nobody will flip a switch and return the operation of the courts to “normal” on June 1. We will have to adjust to a new normal that will look a lot like steady change. This will require family lawyers to be creative, innovative and most of all patient with ourselves and each other.