I recently attended a virtual continuing legal education discussion put on by the Austin Bar Association which addressed the topic of “Back to School Issues in Light of COVID-19: A Discussion Between Bench and Bar.” It was moderated by Patricia Dixon and included Judge Andy Hathcock, Judge Catherine Mauzy, Judge James Arth, and Judge Julio de la Llata.
Below are my notes and comments on a few of the issues addressed:
Custody/Possession Schedule Modification Due to COVID
The panel was asked how they viewed modification actions filed based on changed circumstances that arose due to or during the COVID crisis. While all the judges indicated that each case would necessarily be fact-specific, the general consensus was that the more temporary the circumstance change was the less likely it would be to convince them that a modification was warranted.
Specific Orders Regarding COVID Safety Protocols
The next question related to whether the judges were ordering mask-wearing or other specific safety-related issues in cases involving children. Generally, all the judges indicated that they were not as a routine making such orders and relied on the parents to take appropriate safety measures as they see fit. They did not consider it appropriate to “micromanage parenting” from the bench. The caveat was that any specific unusual circumstances in any particular case could be presented and would be considered.
Child Support Modification Based on COVID Circumstances
The next issue was on child support modification requests based on income reduction due to a COVID-related situation. Some judges indicated that they were surprised that they have not seen more of these types of filings given the widespead nature of layoffs and furloughs. All were in agreement that this situation is most appropriately addressed in a temporary order and that it probably be best to put off a final order until such time as the affected party’s employment situation has resolved, either by a return to work or change in employment and/or income.
Expanded SPO Thursday Overnight Return/Pick Up
Under the Expanded Standard Possession Order the non-primary parent has every Thursday night during the school year but is usually responsible for delivering the child to school on Friday morning and picking the child up after school on Friday. The question was what were the obligations since kids are currently attending school virtually. Would that mean that the non-primary parent was required to deliver the child to the primary parent’s residence for Friday’s school session and then pick the child up again at the end of the day? Or would the child simply attend school virtually from the non-primary parent’s residence? The judges divided somewhat on this issue between a practical approach where the additional Friday transportation would be unnecessary versus a strict interpretation approach based on the specific language of the order. All agreed that any such issues could be addressed via temporary order.
Since hearings are now being conducted virtually via zoom, the judges were asked about common probblems and issues. They reported the following:
- They generally disliked it when the attorney and client appeared together at the same location. It tends to create audio problems and also both the attorney and party appear much smaller on the video since they are sharing the screen.
- The judges indicated that the attorneys need to be better about reading and following the specific zoom instructions that the courts provide.
- Ideally the opposing attorneys would work together to pre-admit as many of the exhibits as possible.
- They all had funny stories relating to odd things appearing on the screen (people/animals) or being heard (toilets flushing, etc.) because the participant forgot to mute themselves.
Overall a very helpful roundtable discussion that provided a lot of insight into how the virtual courthouse is working in this new reality.
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