CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It’s been more than a month since the court system across South Carolina stopped operating in a normal capacity.
Because of COVID-19, all courts shut down for more than a week in mid-March until the Chief Justice issued some guidance about how courts could proceed with operations.
At the beginning of April, the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Donald Wayne Beatty, handed down an order defining how the court system will continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
In short, the courts are open and operating relatively normal with a few exceptions.
“Some of those are hearings that require people to physically be present such as jury trials – those are canceled,” Mark Peper, a local attorney, said. “Any hearings that require direct examination or cross examination of witnesses – those are canceled.”
On the flip side, Peper said if it’s just two lawyers arguing to a judge, that’s been able to move virtually through something like Zoom or Facetime.
“I think there might be an opportunity, for this state in particular, to improve the way technology is used in the courtroom – which is kind of exciting for lawyers anyway,” Peper said.
But, even with the courts somewhat operational, there is a big concern.
“The courts were backed up prior to COVID,” Peper said. “So now they’re twice as backed up as they were – which is a problem, no doubt.”
The Public Information Director with the South Carolina Judicial Branch said courts are continuing to handle as much business as they can remotely.
But when courts do open back up, Peper added they’re not going to be able to operate on the same timeline.
“Our Chief Justice has said when that day occurs, you’re going to operate as if it’s March 14.” Peper said. “So if you’re on a scheduling order, for instance for a June hearing, and we open in June… That’s now an August or September hearing.”
But, with an opening day still up in the air, several people have reached out to us with concerns about custody agreements.
“Because a lot of family court proceedings are just arguments and paperwork, there’s a clause in this order that allows for family court judges to conduct hearings via Zoom,” Peper said.
One woman told us her ex-husband refuses to give her child back because he fears COVID-19, even though she said that goes against their custody order.
Peper said the courts are going to look at each case individually. But, he said, just because we are in a pandemic, all custody agreements must still be followed.
“If they’re operating under an order, that order still is in place and must be followed,” Peper said. “What they can do though is avail themselves to the court on an emergency basis. That clearly would qualify as an emergency.”
If a parent is not following the custody order issued, the Public Information Director with the South Carolina Judicial Branch said, “In such a case, the parent could present the custody order to law enforcement and request assistance with retrieving the child. If law enforcement is not helpful, the parent may file a petition with the family court. The court would hear a matter such as this.”
The S.C. Judicial Branch has developed a list detailing how courts around the state are handling operations during this time – it’s available at this link.