Aimee Goddard, Sam Angell and John Mabie: Vermont's civil courts and COVID-19: Where things stand

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In the last two months, nearly every aspect of daily life has been altered in some way by the health crisis brought on by COVID-19. The Vermont Judiciary is no exception. Vermont courts, however, have made every effort to remain accessible to Vermonters while also balancing the need to protect the immediate health and safety of the public and the courthouse staff. To that end, the Vermont Supreme Court issued Administrative Order Number 49, titled a Declaration of Judicial Emergency and Changes to Court Procedure ("Emergency Declaration"), which took effect on March 17, 2020. The Emergency Declaration postpones all "nonemergency Superior Court hearings, whether evidentiary or non-evidentiary." This postponement is now set to expire on May 31, 2020, unless the Vermont Supreme Court acts to extend it. But what does that mean for the average Vermonter dealing with a civil dispute?

First, because there has been plenty of change, let's start with what has been left unchanged.

If you need to reach the local courthouse, you can still call and reach a real, live person who will answer questions and point you in the right direction. The courthouse staff are essential in every meaning of the word and they remain committed to assisting the community. That, unfortunately, essentially covers the totality of what has been left completely unchanged.

Despite the changes, however, if you need emergency assistance, the Superior Court will still hear and consider emergency matters. Nearly every person who seeks the Court's assistance feels that the matter is emergent and, to them, it is. The Emergency Declaration, however, lists the matters that the Court would agree constitute an emergency. These matters include the following:

- Juvenile Temporary Care Hearings: a Temporary Care Hearing occurs when the state has requested the custody of a child be transferred to the Department of Children and Families. Although this is not a criminal matter, a person who finds themselves in contact with the court for this purpose will not have to navigate the process without an attorney as the court will appoint one for them.

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- Emergency motions related to parent child contact: co-parenting a child with an ex-spouse or significant other is difficult in the best of circumstances. Needless to say, parents are not currently experiencing the best of circumstances. If you have a child whom you are co-parenting, and you believe the child is in danger, you can file an emergency motion to suspend the other parent's contact with the child and the Court will hear your motion and issue a decision. Conversely, if your co-parent is refusing to allow you to have contact with your child, you may file a motion to require your co-parent to allow contact.

- Mental-health hearings considering involuntary hospitalization and/or involuntary medication; and Probate hearings concerning emergency guardianship or Do Not Resuscitate petitions: unfortunately, severe mental health and health conditions do not stop even for a pandemic. In fact, it is far more likely that such conditions will worsen. Accordingly, the court will continue to hold hearings in the limited cases where involuntary hospitalization, medication, and guardianship must be considered.

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- Final hearings in stalking and relief from abuse proceedings: many advocacy organizations dealing with issues of domestic violence have cautioned that the rate of violent incidents is likely to increase during periods of quarantine. Despite this stark warning, courts are not seeing an influx of requests for relief from abuse. If you are the victim of domestic violence the Court will hear your Complaint and issue the appropriate relief. Everyone has the right to be safe at home.

Although the situations above will be considered emergencies, judges also have discretion to deem the following situations emergent if they believe the facts give rise to such a designation:

- Temporary emergency hearings on injunctive relief: an injunction is an order requiring that someone do some action or refrain from taking some action. If you are seeking such an order, and the circumstances are emergent, the Court may agree to hear your matter.

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- Emergency landlord-tenant hearings: while failure to pay rent is not likely an emergency, there are health and safety issues that would rise to that level. If you are a tenant or a landlord and your situation places you or someone else at risk of physical harm, a judge can decide to hear your request for relief.

- Proceedings directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency: while it's not hard to imagine a situation that would give rise to such an action, it would be nearly impossible to think of every possibility. Accordingly, the Emergency Declaration gives judges discretion to determine what situations related to COVID-19 might constitute a public health emergency.

- Finally, an emergency is "any other matter where the Chief Superior Judge concludes that the interests of justice require that the matter be heard during the course of this suspension."

Interfacing with the civil justice system wasn't a breeze before COVID-19 and it certainly isn't simpler now. If you don't see your matter listed above, but you feel it might be emergent, contact an attorney. Like most Vermonters, your local attorneys are doing everything they can to continue to provide services to the community. The work of the Vermont Judiciary is essential and no health crisis can erase the right of every citizen to access justice.

Aimee Goddard, Sam Angell and John Mabie are attorneys with Windham Law, PLC. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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