COVID-19: NC Court Trial Dates Continued for 30 Days; Administrative Offices Remain Open

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Members of the general public – including landowners and farmers – with potential claims or pending property and civil matters before North Carolina state courts have been offered some clarity about possible COVID-19 related delays on normally inflexible court schedules and case deadlines. In response to increasing uncertainty, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has made some decisions and offered clarification for the near future.

North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley held a news conference Friday March 13, 2020 to announce that effective Monday March 16, most pending superior and district court matters – including calendared hearings and trials – will be continued at least thirty (30) days, with limited exceptions. The announcement comes following Governor Roy Cooper’s declaration of a state of emergency.

County court administrative offices will remain open, specifically the clerks of court which accept court filings and manage the probate of estates as well as other special proceedings. (Though co-located in many court houses, county Register of Deeds hours will remain a county by county decision.)  Individual county courts may post additional localized information, and contact with those courts may be accessed through this AOC link. The North Carolina Supreme Court or North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion release dates should not be impacted by this order.

As Chief Justice Beasley noted, “Thousands of people enter our courthouses every day, most often because they have been summoned to be there and will risk legal consequences if they do not appear.”  The order to halt in-court appearances functions to remove a requirement that known or unknown Covid-19 positive litigants and other court participants (e.g. jury panels) come to the court house and gather with other people in order to preserve legal claims. For proceedings exempt from the 30 day continuance, the Chief Justice encouraged trial judges to “be liberal in their discretion to grant relief to people who may not be able to come to court.”  Courts will work to notify litigants and attorneys of new court dates.

As for the exceptions to this continuance, these include preliminary criminal matters such as bond and probation hearings, appointment of counsel for indigent defendants, and juvenile hearings to protect constitutional rights of the accused, and court magistrates will continue to issue warrants and officiate marriages. Also, emergency hearings involving protective orders (e.g. spousal abuse), civil commitment orders (e.g. often employed in suicide prevention) and juvenile custody orders will be allowed to proceed as they arise. Exceptions also include certain special proceedings before the clerks of court, and staff will continue to clock in court filings in all civil and criminal matters. (Special proceedings include foreclosure matters, judicial sales, and matters related to disposition of property, though it is likely the Clerk of Court will have discretion in continuing these matters over the objection of an adverse party). The Chief Justice also clarified that trials currently underway (i.e. those with empaneled juries) will continue on Monday, but she encouraged judges to exercise discretion to conduct hearings remotely when possible.

Given that Clerks of Court will remain open, various statutes of limitations in civil matters will be unaffected, and potential litigants risk losing their claim for a late filing due to Covid-19 related issues. Though sometimes extended under extreme circumstances, such statutes bar legal claims if not filed in a statutorily prescribed time period beginning with the action giving rise to the dispute. Most court filings and other timed document trading between counsel in pending civil matters (e.g. Answers to Complaints, discovery responses, etc.) are generally more flexible, but delay must be founded, and counsel generally and congenially work out such flexibility among themselves. Either way and as noted below, any filing delay attributed to Covid-19 and possible symptoms should be well-documented.

The order has been issued to members of the state bar regarding Chief Justice Beasley’s decision, and notices will be placed at courthouse entrances encouraging members of the public who have likely been exposed to Covid-19 to not enter the courthouse.  In general the public is encouraged to stay away from the courthouses unless falling into one of the noted exemptions, and may check with the AOC website for updates.

Anyone with an imminent pending matter before a county superior or district court and showing flu-like symptoms should consider:

  • if represented by legal counsel, contact them immediately to alert them of your situation, they will take steps to alert the court concerning the pending matter
  • if not represented by counsel, notify the Clerk of Court for your county, be sure to have your case file number and the date of your hearing or other matter to find out whether it falls within one of the exceptions noted above
  • take steps to document your symptoms (with cell phone video if necessary) in the event a visit to a medical facility is not an option or cannot be timely made (for an imminent matter, it will be important to assist the presiding judicial officer in his or her favorable discretion to continue your particular matter and not hold you accountable for your non-appearance)
  • if you are an empaneled member of a jury in a trial already underway, alert the Trial Court Administrator (TCA) (see the county court contact link above)
  • in general, if you are unsure whether your matter fits a particular exception to the continuance, call the Clerk of Court for a determination, and if possible request an email of such determination

One important question raised during the news conference related to such continuance and any potential closure was the status of North Carolina’s state court electronic filing and electronic case file availability, which commentators on the Facebook stream of the live announcement criticized as being behind those of other states and the federal government. (Electronic filing and electronic case file availability is often praised as creating client cost efficiencies, enhancing public access to court files, and expanding access legal specialized skills not found in localized areas). Interim Director of AOC McKinley Wooten assured those attending the press conference that a technology transition has been underway since last summer, though no further details were offered. The AOC is currently piloting “e-filing” capabilities in Alamance, Chowan, Davidson and Wake counties, and other online services in other courts (such as speeding ticket payment) are currently available.

Such continuation will undoubtedly create a backlog of cases. The Chief Justice noted that this continuance will impact “thousands” of cases pending before the state’s courts.