How Covid-19 Has Changed The Way Family Law Matters Are Handled

Family Law Trends in 2020

What a year.  Who hasn’t enjoyed life in 2020?  Oh, right.  Everyone.  Covid-19 has brought changes to our ever-changing world that none of us could have predicted, and the legal landscape was not immune from its influence.  Some of these changes affected the courts in a positive way, some in a negative way, and the impact on families engaged in custody disputes or divorces is undeniable.  In this post, I will share some of my observations of how Covid-19 has changed how family law matters are handled and how it has affected clients in Central Minnesota.

 

Scheduling Nightmares

The courts in Minnesota picked a somewhat controversial way of handling the early pandemic – they shut down completely.  For a time, this was fine, but ultimately, they ran into constitutional problems because criminal defendants have very specific rights when it comes to timing of trials.  The courts had to start back up, but then they had a severe backlog of criminal defense cases that had to be addressed immediately on top of everything else that was delayed.  This basically caused a traffic jam effect, and everything has been pushed out, delayed, and continued.  Even when the court gets to old cases, they have a new backlog of, well, new cases.  The system is finally starting to catch up, but I have one client that was scheduled for trial in April 2020 pre-pandemic that still does not have a new trial date.  You might be wondering *how* the court can catch up.  Not everyone agrees with me, but I think it is due entirely to the system being forced into the 21st century by…
 

ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM

(Please don’t sue me, Mazda)
 
As with other aspects of our lives, the courts are now in the hands of our new digital overlord – the almighty Zoom.  If you have managed to avoid using Zoom even once since March of 2020, I don’t know whether to be scared or impressed.  Zoom use is a fact of life, and I think it might be here to stay – even after the pandemic. 
 
Early on, courts experienced some severe growing pains due to zoom use.  Judges, you might have noticed, are not typically young people.  Most did not take well to adjusting to zoom.  To their credit, all the judges I have interacted with in my local county learned fairly quickly, but there were significant issues early on with judges not realizing they were muted, or not knowing how to use breakout rooms for witness sequestration, or not knowing that the stream quality would improve if we only had as few people as necessary with an active video feed.  As they have learned, this process has smoothed out a great deal.  I completed a fully zoom-based trial yesterday and it was almost hitch-less (we had one witness who had difficulty logging in).
 
Personally? I am a huge fan of zoom court.  Zoom court allows me to represent clients in distant counties without having to worry about whether or how to charge for travel time.  Hearing in Duluth?   No problem!  Let me just throw a button up and jacket on over my t-shirt for the next thirty minutes, and let’s hammer this out in front of the judge (who may or may not be on their back porch with a virtual background that looks like the worlds fakest court room – yes, this is a real-life example).   When litigants only must log onto their computer to show up, it greatly reduces the amount of time spent waiting for parties, makes it quicker and easier for courts to take people out of order if someone is late, and generally allows for greater scheduling flexibility and, therefore, efficiency.  I do not know whether zoom court is here to stay or not, but I truly hope it is.  The other reason I love it is because as a technologically savvy attorney, I understand and can capitalize on good use of tech.  I have high end cameras and microphones hooked up to my zoom setup.  When I am speaking, the court sees me in crystal clarity with high fidelity audio broadcast.  You might be surprised how positive that effect can be when you’re trying to be persuasive and your opponent looks fuzzy and sounds like they’re in a fishbowl.
 

Carving the Curve

Before Covid, there was a typical range of timelines for divorces in my region.  A typical divorce, start to finish, would take somewhere around 6 to 12 months.  Of course, some were faster, some much slower, but most people hit that part of the bell curve.  Since Covid, I have seen a curious change from a normal bell curve to a more bi-modal distribution.  People seem to either be settling exceptionally fast or they dig in for an all out knock down fight.  Since, as we noted in the first section, god only knows when they will get a trial date, that tends to mean if they do not settle fast that their case will drag on for a long time. 
 
I attribute this to quarantine.  When you must socially distance for the good of the population, it is difficult to get out of the house.  If you are effectively shut in with a person for several months and your relationship is not strong to begin with… it does not exactly go well.  Once the restrictions in Minnesota were loosened a bit, my case load *exploded*.  Starting in June, our phones went nuts from people trying to get out of their broken relationship with a person they felt literally trapped with for the last three months.  
 
The good news here is that even though 2020 was horrible in so many ways… it is almost over.  If you do feel stuck in an unfortunate relationship, you can get out – literally and metaphorically.  2021 does not need to feel like 2020 redux.  Call me.
 
 
NOTE: Due to concerns surrounding Covid-19, all meeting requests will be handled either by phone or video-conference until further notice.  Toepfer at Law is committed to responsibly managing our people and to minimizing any potential exposure or spread of the virus.
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Meet Tony Toepfer

Attorney Anthony (Tony) Toepfer began his legal career in the area of business and technology law. While successful in that field, he felt there was something missing. He turned down opportunities, because, as he says, “I wanted to see the faces of the people I was helping.” He transitioned into family law practice, and found what he was looking for.

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