In reopening, courts are to take several safety measures to maintain effective social distancing and restrict potential COVID-19 exposure.
In an order dated April 28, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court loosened the restrictions imposed on the Pennsylvania state court and legal system due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. While the order extends the judicial emergency declared on March 16, 2020, through June 1, 2020, the order generally directs courts to reopen to conduct all court business beginning on May 4, 2020, subject to several safety constraints and considerations.
Courts to Reopen with Restrictions on May 4, 2020
In reopening, courts are to take several safety measures to maintain effective social distancing and restrict potential COVID-19 exposure. First, in-person access and proceedings are to be “strictly limited,” and courts are encouraged to decide matters on the papers and/or conduct court proceedings through the use of “advanced communication technologies” such as videoconferencing, closed circuit television, telephone and email. Second, where in-person hearings and conferences are necessary, such hearings and conferences are to be held in courtrooms specially designated to limit person-to-person contact. Third, where practicable, courts are to permit in-person hearings and conferences to be attended by counsel only. Finally, courts are to provide for court filings to be made remotely.
Filing Deadlines Extended to May 11, 2020
The order also extended the current suspension of time calculations and deadlines to May 11, 2020. That is, legal papers and pleadings required to be filed between March 19 and May 8, 2020, will generally be deemed timely filed if filed by May 11, 2020. With that said, the order grants president judges “substantial discretion” in enforcing deadlines. Attorneys and pro se litigants who believe a deadline poses “significant danger to the health of one or more persons” or is “unreasonable or impossible” in light of COVID-19 restrictions may file a certification for the court’s consideration. Notably, this suspension does not extend statutes of limitations that would otherwise expire during the suspension period.
Guidance for Legal Professionals
The order also provides meaningful direction to legal professionals. Specifically, attorneys are encouraged to conduct their practices remotely as much as possible. This includes depositions, except for depositions of healthcare professionals “substantially involved in responding to the COVID-19 public emergency,” which are suspended through June 1, 2020. Attorneys are advised to counsel their clients that the COVID-19 public health emergency may not be used to secure a strategic advantage in litigation. Additionally, the order incorporates Governor Wolf’s updated guidance explaining that legal professionals may access their physical offices “on a limited basis as necessary to render legal services that cannot practicably be completed [remotely], and which are being rendered to comply with a court directive or deadline, or to meet a client’s needs that are critical to the client’s health or safety.” Attorneys accessing their offices for permissible reasons must comply with the Secretary of Health’s orders concerning building and worker safety.
Key Additional Provisions
Additional key provisions of the order include the following:
- Jury trials (criminal and civil) are suspended and will be scheduled for a date in the future by the courts.
- For court proceedings to which a right of public and press access would otherwise exist, courts must provide for reasonable means of access
- Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600(C), which sets forth the computation of time rules to ensure a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial, remains suspended so that the time period for the COVID-19 public health emergency is excluded from the calculation of time.
- For courts that have declared local emergencies or instituted local emergency orders and directives, such local emergencies/orders/directives remain in effect.
- In-person payments to magisterial district courts remain suspended until May 11, 2020. After May 11, payments may be made in person but payors are encouraged to make payments via mail, online or telephone.
- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s previous “Order Regarding Alternative Filing Procedure for Children’s Fast Track Appeals” remains in full force and effect through June 1, 2020.
For More Information
If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact Sharon L. Caffrey, Wayne A. Mack, Daniel G. Selznick, any of the attorneys in our Trial Practice Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.
Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.