AUSTIN (KXAN) — Even with social distancing measures, there are places some people can’t avoid and some responsibilities that aren’t optional, such as going to court.
Travis County has suspended all court appearances for people out-of-jail, jury summonses and jury trials until May 8.
The Office of Court Administration confirmed to KXAN they have even been sending texts to people notifying them of postponed court dates and reset dockets.
However, the Administrative Director for the Texas Office of Court Administration David Slayton said, as a whole, “courts can’t just shut down.”
“Individuals, for instance, who are arrested have to go before a judge within a certain number of hours, so they can determine ‘Is there probable cause to hold them in jail? What’s their bail going to be? Will they get a court-appointed attorney?'” he explained. “Those types of things can’t really wait.
The Supreme Court of Texas issued an emergency order to tackle some legal uncertainty from COVID-19.
The order allows courts to postpone or modify some deadlines and procedures, extend the statute of limitations in any civil case 30 days past the state’s disaster declaration and requires every participant to alert the court of any flu-like symptoms.
The order also allows attorneys, witnesses, judges, court reporters and even jurors to participate remotely — by teleconference or video call.
Slayton said they’ve utilized the technology in the past for certain parties, but not everyone involved in the proceeding.
“We are trying to come up with solutions where everybody can be remote,” Slayton said. “At the same time, that the public can still have access to observe the proceedings.”
On Monday, his office tested out a Facebook Live to allow the public to listen in on hearings from wherever they are.
“Hopefully in the future, we could still use this and make the courts accessible for people, no matter where they are at,” Slayton said, “and still allow the courts to do their business in an efficient way.”
He said a lot of these ideas came about during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“We’ve been able to take those lessons that we learned from that and implement some of those here,” Slayton said. “I think that’s made our response to this situation all the better.”
Spring Break is usually a fun week for Matt Tucek, when his daughter comes to stay with him.
“She’s my world,” he said. “She’s the center of it, and I’ll do everything I can do protect her.”
He shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife.
When his daughter’s spring break was extended due to concerns over COVID-19, he thought that meant she could stay with him longer. Based on the order in their case, however, things aren’t clear.
“So, my interpretation is I keep her until the night before school starts back,” Tucek said.
It’s an emotional question for parents who share custody: how will this affect time with their kids?
Another Austin dad, Jonathan Ross, told KXAN he was concerned to put his child on a plane because of germs and the spread of the disease.
“I’m looking out for his safety, and I can honestly say that in front of a judge,” Ross said.
Attorney Margaret Tucker recommended any concerned parents touch base with legal counsel, call the county, or click here for more resources.
“Everything in family law is a case-by-case basis,” Tucker said.
When it comes to extended Spring Breaks or postponed classes, Travis County issued an emergency order recommending parents follow the original calendar set out by the child’s school.
Read the emergency order regarding possession and access of children here.
A district court judge in Williamson County posted these guidelines online:
In an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), local school districts have or are considering school closures after the spring break. Consequently, the Williamson County Courts have been receiving inquiries requesting guidance for parents whose children are due back after spring break.
The Standard Possession Schedule contained in most divorce and SAPCR orders is based on the school calendar. This means the possession schedule should be read in conjunction with the school calendar: where the child goes to school; or for the school district in which the child resides, if the child is not yet in school. In entering these orders, it was unforeseen that spring break for area schools might be extended because of a pandemic illness, such as COVID-19.
In situations like the present one, for purposes of interpretation of the order, the original school calendar determines the possession schedule. School closures, which may have the net effect of extending the spring break, should not be used by the visiting parent to extend his or her possession period with the child. The child is due back to the other parent at the time spring break ends according to the original school calendar.