Apart from a handful of limited exceptions, North Carolina’s civil courts were closed for almost three months in the Spring of 2020 in response to the community spread of COVID-19 across the state. In June, North Carolina’s civil courts slowly began re-opening, incorporating a variety of safety measures to protect court personnel and visitors from the virus. While these safety measures and restrictions vary from county to county, one thing is for sure – every courthouse looks and feels very different now than before the pandemic. So, what should you know before going to a courthouse during COVID-19?
Here are 10 Tips for safely navigating the courthouse amid a global pandemic:
- Wear your mask. Whether you’re a litigant, witness, spectator, or lawyer, you need to mask up, and if you forget, a judge, clerk, or bailiff will undoubtedly remind you in quick order.
- Project, articulate, and speak slowly. Not only does mask-wearing muffle our voices, it also hampers the listener’s ability to read lips and observe facial expressions, especially when any parties are elderly or hearing impaired.
- Find a mask that does not muffle your voice more than necessary. Disposable, surgical masks or thin fabric masks tend to muffle sound far less than thick fabric masks.
- Budget extra time for security lines. Now, in addition to having everyone to empty their pockets and walk through a metal detector, courts have implemented additional COVID-19 measures to prevent transmission of the virus. These measures include temperature checks, recording your name for contact-tracing, and being asked a series of COVID-19 related questions (e.g., “Do you have any of the following symptoms?”, “Have you been exposed to someone with COVID-19?”, “Have you traveled internationally in the past 14 days?”). Expect these delays and arrive early.
- Be patient with court staff. Patience with court staff should be a universal rule even in non-pandemic times; however, it is especially important now. Most courthouses are operating with fewer on-site staff and modified procedures, practices, and schedules. Moreover, local courts are having to remain flexible daily to accommodate the realities of the pandemic. Be patient and wait your turn. Your understanding will go a long way.
- Maintain six feet of separation. Engage in social distancing whenever possible. For attorneys – this means when you approach opposing counsel or the bench to perform tasks such as handing up documents – do it at an arm’s length. You don’t know the vulnerability or comfort level of the person you’re approaching.
- Do not have whispered conversations when another hearing or trial is taking place. Although courts have always frowned upon side conversations during a hearing, they still happen. Maybe a colleague you haven’t seen in a long while says hello and makes small talk, or your client has a question. Perhaps opposing counsel attempts to negotiate a last-minute deal or explain that his witness is caught in traffic and will be late. Whatever the reason, we all try to avoid whispered side conversations out of respect for the court, but they happen anyway. Now more than ever, we need to police ourselves and move the discussion outside. Masks are already creating a challenge for judges, court reporters, and parties to hear everyone – don’t make it more difficult with side noise. Moreover, we have a habit of leaning in close to someone when we whisper, which is inadvisable given social distancing recommendations. Just step outside.
- Be mindful of where you sit in court. Most courtrooms have taped off areas or taped Xs on the benches or chairs to show where people can and cannot sit. However, most courtrooms do not have similar taping measures for the areas where attorneys typically sit, such as the front bench or jury box. Even without tape to guide you, don’t sit within 6 feet of anyone. In an unfamiliar courthouse, it is advisable to ask the clerk, bailiff, or local counsel where you are permitted to sit.
- Extend professional courtesy to opposing parties and opposing counsel. Consent to continuances or remote hearings when there is a legitimate COVID-19 related reason the opposing party or opposing counsel needs to avoid appearing in court. Where possible, don’t make these decisions fall on the judge or clerks. In the same vein, clerks and judges are frequently giving parties the benefit of the doubt if they call in sick and granting continuances without making them appear. Yes, some people will take advantage of that policy, but for the time being, let’s pick our battles. Better safe than sorry.
- Above all, don’t go to court sick. Don’t go to court if you’ve knowingly been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Answer the entry questionnaire truthfully. Don’t pop a couple of Advils to pass the temperature test. Don’t have your client come to court sick or after having been exposed. Do your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
These are challenging times – some even say (in about a dozen emails a day) these are unprecedented times. As attorneys, we are in the business of observing precedent. The lack of precedent is often an invitation for debate. While there may be some debate as to the safest and most efficient methods of holding court during a pandemic, we should all recognize the challenges court staff, opposing counsel, and clients are facing in adjusting to this new normal. Be patient, be adaptive, and we’ll get through this together.