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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Hundreds Of Divorce And Custody Cases On Hold During Coronavirus Pandemic

Mecklenburg County

Family court is moving a lot slower in North Carolina because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all divorce and child custody hearings are on hold until at least June 1. In Mecklenburg County, that amounts to about 700 cases. District Court Judge Rex Marvel says exceptions include someone’s life being in danger or if there is an allegation of sexual abuse. He spoke to WFAE about how court services are continuing to proceed.

Rex Marvel:  All of our clerks and all of our staff are wearing masks. They have hand sanitizer and our deputies, the same thing -- they're wearing masks and they're enforcing social distancing, keeping people apart. No more than 10 people in a courtroom. They're also sanitizing the desks and the doors after groups go in and out to keep the courtroom as safe as possible. 

Gwendolyn Glenn: And I'm sure these numbers are growing as the pandemic continues. Are people able to file at this point?

Marvel: Yes. Filing is still open. The clerk's office is still open from 9 o'clock in the morning till noon. Our family court administrator is still open. Our trial court administrators are still open. So people are still absolutely able to file and they're still able to get questions answered on their cases if they need to. 

Judge Rex Marvel
Credit Judge Rex Marvel
Mecklenburg County Judge Rex Marvel.

Glenn: Now in reading up on this, I have been hearing people saying that people are using the closed courts as an excuse not to follow the orders that are already in place. Are you seeing that?

Marvel: Well, that's why following Justice (Cheri) Beasley's order, we are still hearing emergencies. And so, if there is an emergency custody issue -- be it someone is a victim of abuse or someone is a threat of being taken away or the jurisdiction -- We are still hearing those. And I do get those emails throughout the week that I would have to come into the courthouse to address them and sign them. 

Glenn: Would fear of a child, being exposed to coronavirus ... is the pandemic considered an emergency? 

Marvel: It would depend on the other factors, but certainly. 

Glenn: Are you guys making those decisions as a group or as a single judge? 

Marvel: They are generally as a single judge. But I can tell you that we have conference calls and meetings online to talk about this circumstance and talk about issues involving COVID-19 and the changes to the courthouse. So we are working as a team.

Glenn: And what about divorces? Are there instances where those are considered emergencies and warrant a hearing?

Marvel: They would have to be some outside extenuating circumstances that would amount to that. But generally, divorces are not considered emergencies. I can say, though, if parties reach consents, we are still able to process those. 

Glenn: Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Rex Marvel. I also talked to Courtney Smith, a family court attorney in Charlotte. She is concerned that the June 1 date of the courts reopening to hear child custody and divorce cases will be extended, with even more cases piling up.

Courtney Smith: Mecklenburg County is one of our state's most populous counties, and we have a significant volume of family law cases filed here every single day. So not only do we have recently-filed cases but existing cases that were filed in 2019, '18, '17 and the years prior. It's not uncommon for these cases to go on for years at a time. If you don't fall into one of those exceptions, then your case is simply sitting on hold.

Not only have court proceedings been postponed until a date following June 1, but filing deadlines have also been extended. For example, an answer or answering counterclaims were due to be filed between March 16 and June 1. They are now considered timely filed if they're filed by the end of the day on June 1. 

Glenn: And are you seeing cases, are you hearing of cases where some parents are using the closed courts as an excuse to defy orders in place? 

Smith: Unfortunately, yes. I think there are a lot of folks who ... the sentiment or the desire to withhold the child from the other parent kind of sitting there just below the surface waiting for that opportunity to arise. And that is certainly the most frequently asked question I've received since the pandemic began. And my advice to people is this is not a justifiable reason to withhold your child from the other parent -- absent some unique circumstances where there are legitimate health and safety concerns. An example would be if a parent had just recently returned from international travel or perhaps had been incarcerated and in some sort of setting where they were at high risk. 

Courtney Smith
Credit Tin Fulton Walker & Owen
Family Law Attorney Courtney Smith.

Glenn: And with all of the uncertainty in terms of when the courts will reopen -- are there any alternatives for families while the courts are closed? 

Smith: Absolutely. And these are alternatives that don't just exist right now because of the pandemic. These options are always available. But one that I recommend most highly is the collaborative divorce process where folks choose attorneys who are specifically trained and certified in collaborative divorce, who are going to guide you through the process every step of the way. And most importantly, a commitment from all involved to resolve differences without ever having to go to court. People can begin that process right now if they want to. And the timeline is entirely up to the parties in terms of how quickly or how slowly they need to go. 

Glenn: Well, Courtney, thank you for talking with us today.

Smith: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. 

Glenn: Courtney Smith is a family law attorney here in Charlotte. 

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.