COVID-19 Closes Courts. Now What?
On March 16, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared a statewide judicial emergency drastically reducing the functions of Pennsylvania courts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It then issued several subsequent administrative orders outlining the impact the judicial emergency will have on court functions throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
In response, most county courts of common pleas issued orders clarifying the procedures to be followed in each of those counties.
As of the date of publication of this article, the temporary, general closure of Pennsylvania courts to the public will remain in place through April 30, 2020.
Despite these general closures, courts are still permitted and required to perform essential functions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s guidance is that essential functions include:
- election matters
- children’s fast-track matters, and
- matters credibly labeled as emergency fillings
Each court within Pennsylvania has issued separate orders outlining how they are functioning during the judicial emergency and providing guidance to litigants and other court-related offices. The Supreme Court is maintaining a list of the COVID-19 related orders that have been issued throughout the state.
So, what does this mean for litigants in Pennsylvania?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is, it depends.
Generally, all trials and ordinary court hearings or arguments are suspended. All emergency hearings and arguments will be heard at the discretion of the court upon a determination that an emergency exists. The courts will handle emergency matters on a case-by-case basis. The courts have also expressly prohibited evictions during the judicial emergency.
If you are facing an emergency that requires court intervention, whether it be a family law emergency, contract dispute, landlord/tenant matter or something else, contact Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP to discuss your options with one of our attorneys. Although we have closed our physical office, our virtual office is open for business.
In addition, the courts have suspended all time calculations for purposes of time computations through April 30, 2020.
This means that they have put on hold any:
- deadlines set by statute (for example, the amount of time allowed to file Preliminary Objections or an Answer a Complaint) or
- deadlines set by the court in a specific case (for example, deadlines for pre-trial statements or expert reports).
As long as these legal papers or pleadings are filed by May 1, 2020, the courts will consider them to be filed on time.
An exception to this general rule applies to cases nearing the statute of limitations deadline. In those cases, litigants must, at a minimum, file a praecipe for a writ of summons for purposes of tolling the statute of limitations. This means that although parties do not have to file a full Complaint during the court closure period, they must at least file the praecipe to preserve their right to initiate the lawsuit without running afoul of statute of limitations deadlines.
Additional rules apply to criminal matters, and you can find them in both the Supreme Court’s and individual counties’ orders.
Although this order has closed the courts to the public and postponed non-emergency court appearances, you can still address and even resolve legal matters outside of court. Our attorneys continue to meet with clients to prepare to litigate cases once the courts reopen, deal with emergency situations, and negotiate settlements on behalf of our clients.
Laura McGarry is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Penn State Law and provides legal counsel to individuals and businesses in Lancaster and surrounding communities.