This blog serves to inform the New Mexico Public, as well as the clients and friends of Sandia Family Law as the status of court policies during the public health emergency due to Covid-19.
It has been a difficult four months since Covid-19 entered our midst. Our previous blog, "Custody and Time Sharing During Covid-19", posted helpful guidelines for our clients, especially those dealing with child custody situations. As of today, we are still under the governor’s public health emergency.
On March 11, 2020, the Governor of New Mexico issued an executive order declaring a public health emergency, which among other things, prohibited mass gatherings and ordered the closure of all but essential businesses. While this public health order acknowledged the judicial branch as an independent branch of government and excluded courthouses from most of the order, it directed the New Mexico Supreme Court to act. And it did.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has issued several orders defining courthouse protocol. On March 12, 2020, the Supreme Court directed the New Mexico Judiciary to suspend civil trials and limit gatherings in courthouses to no more than 25 people. (NMSA No. 20-8500-002) The limitation of 25 individuals has seriously limited activity at the Bernalillo County courthouse.
That order further gave judges discretion to hold hearings telephonically or audio-visually. Finally, the New Mexico Supreme Court left limitations on the gatherings of people in courthouses up to the individual judicial districts. (NMSA NO. 20-8500-002)
All 13 district courts have remained open during the pandemic. While all hearings were canceled during the early weeks of the pandemic, all courts have re-started hearings in varying degrees.
What this means for family law cases is that while some smaller counties had started hearing some family law cases in person (Lincoln and Otero counties), most including Santa Fe County, Sandoval County, and Bernalillo County have held no in-person hearings, except for domestic violence emergencies since mid-March 2020.
On June 6th, the Court issued a little more information stating that criminal trials have re-recommenced. Civil trials will be next (possibly included in phase 2 re-openings) but family court hearings are “somewhere down the road.” Because criminal trials may require four courtrooms, due to the 25-person limitation, space is very limited.
Therefore, all hearings into the fall will likely be only telephonic hearings or via Googles Meets. The court has also noted, however, that more motions will be decided upon submission of motions and responses only.
What This Means For You
First, it means that more and more issues will be decided WITHOUT a hearing. That means the issue will be decided based on the merits of the written motions and response alone. Therefore, it is very important you have an attorney that knows how to address the issues you face in a way that the Court can quickly understand and rule upon. This is not the time to go Pro Se (without an attorney) or with a new attorney. It also means you must have a very responsive attorney who does not miss deadlines. Many attorneys in the family law arena play loose with the rules when it comes to the filing of and responding to motions.
If your motion is set for hearing, it will be either by telephone or audio-visually via Google Meets. If your hearing is a telephonic one, your attorney will direct whether you should call in from your own location or from the office.
For Google Meets, likewise, your attorney will direct whether you should call in from your own location or from the office. For evidentiary hearings, those requiring the submission of documents and testimony, it is both easier for the attorney and more advantageous for your case, if you are in the same room as the attorney for the purpose of communicating with your attorney during the hearing.
The Court issued a memorandum in late March which directed that custody orders remain in effect. During the early days of the pandemic, there were some reasons that may have allowed children to be withheld from parents as delineated in our previous blog on these issues. However, now that we have entered phase 1.B of the pandemic and the Covid numbers are going down, there is no excuse for withholding children from the other parent. Restaurants and APN are both open if you need supervised visits or exchanges.
Out of state visitation should also be occurring as ordered. The only situations that may call for different protocols would be for vulnerable individuals. Vulnerable individuals are defined in the Altogether New Mexico Safe Practices for Individuals and Employers. In custody cases, this should apply only to seriously sick children who should probably remain in the primary home while the non-custodial parent comes to visit. This will still require a revised timesharing agreement or agreement of the parties.
We still see many questions about withholding children because of one party’s contact with elderly parents or elderly grandparents. If you have sick or elderly parents and grandparents, do not allow your children around them for everyone’s protection. However, such contact is not an excuse to withhold the children from the other parent.
Finally, while the office is open, most visits are limited to phone contact. Please call ahead of time if you need to come in, as our in-office staff is limited. We are using a combination of working from home while alternating with in-office staff. Someone is always available to take your phone calls.
In summation, not all attorneys are up-to-date with all Covid procedures. At Sandia Family Law, we remain informed of the current status of Covid restrictions and are in contact with the courthouse judicial staff on a weekly, if not, daily basis. And with over 35 years of experience, we will ensure our representation exceeds your expectations.