Frequently Asked Questions Involving Courts and COVID-19
Restraining Order Cases
How do I know if my local courthouse is still open?
You can call your local courthouse or your attorney (if you have one) directly to find out what court appearances are still taking place. You can find contact information for local courts in your state in WomensLaw.org’s Courthouse Locations section. You can also find your specific courthouse information in any documents you have from your case. If you are unable to reach anyone by phone, try your state court’s website. To find out the status of your state or local court, you can visit the National Center for State Courts’ website where you can find the latest information on your state and local courts and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m not sure if my court date is still scheduled. What do I do?
You should first try to call or check online to find out if your courthouse is open and if your court hearing is still on the calendar. If your court appearance or hearing has not been postponed, and you do not appear, there may be consequences. For example, if your case is a criminal case and you do not appear, the judge might revoke your bail, issue a warrant for your arrest, or take other steps. In a civil case, a judge might dismiss a petition or issue a default judgment for the other party (depending on if you are the petitioner or respondent). If you are unsure or unable to determine if your court date is still scheduled, you may want to consider making plans to attend until you hear otherwise.
What happens if my court date was canceled or postponed (adjourned)?
If you find out that your court case has been postponed, the letter or the notice where you learned this information should also explain what will happen to your case going forward. If you received a letter, it might set a new date for your case. If the court is closed, then there may be a time in the future when the court will begin to reschedule court appearances. If you still have questions, you may be able to call the court clerk for more information. If you already have a restraining order, you can ask the court clerk if the expiration date has been extended. If it has been extended, ask for the new expiration date and request a confirmation letter in the mail. If your court date was canceled, you can ask if there is a new date. If there is a new date, ask for a confirmation letter in the mail.
What should I do about my case if I test positive for COVID-19 or I am experiencing symptoms?
If you think you are sick, review the symptoms of COVID-19 and call your doctor or local health department. Ask your doctor to email you a letter immediately that mentions your symptoms and ask the doctor to specifically recommend that you do not attend court. You should also contact the court clerk where your case is pending to let them know about your situation and to ask for an adjournment. Ask the clerk for an email address where you can send the doctor’s note as proof that you are sick. The court should postpone your case so that you can take the time you need to recover and lower the risk that you might spread the virus to others. If you are not well enough to contact the court on your own, you may be able to have someone else reach out to them for you. Once you email your doctor’s letter, you should follow up with the clerk to make sure that the letter was received and that it was sent to the judge and to the opposing party or their lawyer.
I don’t have a restraining order, but I need one. Can I still get one?
Most courts are continuing to issue restraining orders (also called protection orders, injunctions, orders of protection, protective orders, or other similar names). Check with your courthouse to see if the filing location or hours have changed with the new COVID-19 precautions in place, or if online filing is permitted. Your local courthouse may have forms available to request a restraining order. You might also be able to find forms on your state court’s website or on WomensLaw.org’s Download Court Forms page.
You can also check WomensLaw.org’s Restraining Orders page for help determining whether you would qualify for an order. If you are in immediate danger, you may want to consider contacting the police if that is a safe option for you.
I already have a temporary restraining order. My courthouse has canceled in-person hearings. Can I still get a final order?
In light of the current pandemic, many courts are extending temporary restraining orders so that they do not expire before you are able to have a hearing to get a final order. Some courts are sending letters to individuals about their specific case, and some are issuing statewide notices about the status of the courts and court orders. You may or you may not receive notice from the court about an extension. You should not assume that your order is extended unless you have received a letter that says this, or unless your state has issued a statewide notice about restraining orders. You may want to call the court for further guidance on extending or keeping in place your current restraining order. The paperwork you received after the court granted the initial order may have contact information, or you can look on WomensLaw.org’s Courthouse Locations page. You can also find state-by-state information about court operations in this time of crisis on the National Center for State Courts’ website.
My restraining order has been violated. What can I do?
If your order has been violated, or if you are in immediate danger, you may want to consider contacting the police if that is a safe option for you. Violations of protection/restraining orders are usually arrestable offenses. If you are not already working with a local victim advocate, you may want to consider finding one. We have a list of Advocates and Shelters in your state on WomensLaw.org. They can help assess your risk and safety plan around your unique situation. For general safety tips, please visit the WomensLaw Safety Tips page. If you are concerned for your tech-related safety, especially if you are using technology now more than before, please check out additional resources in TechSafety.org’s Survivor Toolkit.
How can I start my case?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many state courts will allow you to start your case electronically - either through email or the court’s specific electronic filing system. Many states also still have in-person filing hours or drop-off services that allow for contactless in-person delivery of court filings. Additionally, you may be able to mail in your paperwork. However, the postal service is experiencing COVID-related delays. The in-person and electronic filing may be faster and more reliable than the option to send filings through the mail.
How do I serve the respondent before my hearing?
Generally, the court will allow you to serve the abuser in the same way that the court allows for filing documents. For example, if the court allows you to file your case through email, the respondent can also be served through email. Mail is often another option, but with possible delays in mail service, courts advise sending court paperwork at least 10 days ahead of time. You should confirm with a lawyer or the court clerk what form of service is acceptable.
What type of hearing will I have?
In many states, you will have a virtual hearing. Some states are having in-person hearings even if you are able to file your paperwork electronically, so always follow the instructions provided to you by the court.
What is a virtual hearing?
Virtual hearings are court hearings that take place through phone or video conferences, instead of in-person hearings in the courthouse. COVID-19 has made in-person hearings unsafe or challenging in some states, so courts are moving hearings online to continue to process cases. You can participate through video conferencing software (like Zoom) or connect by phone (if allowed by your court).
How do I know if I have a virtual hearing?
The most important thing to keep in mind is to be in contact with the court. Regardless of how you file your case or documents, someone from the court should follow up with you as to how your case will proceed. This may be through mail or phone, so be sure to give the court a current phone number and mailing address.
What will the courtroom be like for my virtual hearing?
The process for your virtual hearing will likely be very similar to an in-person hearing, but you may be kept in a virtual waiting room until your case is called. If you are calling in rather than using video conference software, not being able to see the other party and the judge may be difficult. The order of events and the procedure for conducting the hearing typically remain the same.
How do I prepare for a virtual hearing?
There are a few things you can do to prepare for your hearing.
- Think about any documents or evidence you might want the judge to see. Your evidence can include anything that helps tell your story (medical records, photographs, text messages, phone records, etc.). The judge will decide what evidence s/he is allowed to consider under your state’s rules of evidence. You may need to submit all evidence and documents to the court before the hearing by scanning the documents or taking photos of them. The court should specify how and when you should submit documents.
- Have copies of the documents with you so you can refer to them easily during the hearing.
- If possible, set up for your hearing in a location where you will not be disturbed. Make sure that the audio and video equipment you are using is working properly.
- Your court may use Zoom or other platforms (Skype, Webex) that require you to download software or an app to join the meeting. These downloads are free but make sure to download the software ahead of time. It may take time to download and you don’t want to be late to your hearing if you wait to download it right before your hearing starts. The court should provide you a link or phone number to join the hearing.
What technology do I need for a virtual hearing?
To join the hearing through video conferencing, you will need a device that has the ability to connect to the Internet. Keep in mind that you may need to have a computer, tablet, or phone that has a working camera. If you are using a cell phone that has a limited number of minutes, check that you have enough minutes available. Be aware of battery life. Keep electronics connected to a charger, if possible. Courts know that many people may need assistance to participate in a virtual hearing, but you should let them know if you need assistance. Communicate any accommodations or needs you have to the court due to any disabilities that you may have.