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June 2020 Fox Firm Update on COVID-19 Impact on Legal System:

As many current and potential Fox Firm clients may already know, the march to return to an ‘open for business’ model has stalled when it comes to our court system. Though state judges and legal administrators have been diligently exploring ways to resolve the logjam of cases arising from the shut-down, the decisions surrounding courthouses requires a different calculus than other sectors of the public sphere. That is because attendance for court cases is compulsory and largely involuntary.

As of June 12, 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court issued the attached Third Order Extending Statewide Judicial Emergency, which, among other things, moved the date of any potential public court gatherings until July 12, 2020. However, this June 12 Order also plainly encourages, if not mandates, that all Courts utilize technology to move cases through the court system, namely via videoconference platforms. Videoconference platforms have proven to work well in many, many cases.

So, the good news is that the court system is no longer at a gridlocked standstill and I am seeing many of my cases placed on calendars for remote adjudication. Many others of my cases are still on hold, however. For now, each judge determines her/his own approach to remote case resolution. Many judges seem slow to adapt or unsure of how to devise a system that protect each litigant’s legal rights, permits public access to hearings and works efficiently. Fortunately, the number of judges who appear hesitant to use ‘remote resolution’ technology looks to be shrinking. Since no judge wants to continue to amass a huge backlog, I expect that one or two highway lines will open up soon for all judges and that, as a result, the cases and begin moving past out of the traffic jam. Again, however, each case and each judge is different.

In the meantime, I am advising all my current and potential clients to be patient, but to not sit idle in advancing their claims or pushing to achieve their objectives. We can still file new cases and new motions and judges are still available to address urgent (and many non-urgent) matters. I find that we are making good progress (if not outright resolution) in the majority of our cases despite the limitations arising from this pandemic.

Unfortunately, at Fox Firm, we are still conducting videoconference or phone meetings rather than in-person office meetings. When necessary, however, I have conducted court videohearings or mediation in my office with both myself and my client present through a Zoom link. (In those instances, both my client and I wear masks). Katherine, our paralegal/administrator still wants clients to notify the office before anyone drops by, so she can meet them out in the parking lot.

We will all get through this. Just please remember that since lawyers make decisions based on facts and data and not outside politics, the realities of this virus will continue to impede the ‘business-as-usual’ return to the court system as we knew it (only a few long months ago).

April 2020 Fox Firm Update:

Dear Fox Firm Clients

First and foremost, all of us at Fox Firm hope each of you are finding a way to cope with this public health crisis that has turned our lives upside down. Most of all, we hope you and your circle of family and friends are safe and well. This fog is dense, but it will lift.

Please allow me to pass along some important information about how courthouse matters are being affected and what Fox Firm’s response and case management strategy will be during this crisis. Given the whirlwind pace of events since the last FAQ email about how the COVID-19 crisis will affect client cases and Fox Firm practices, I am adding some additional Q & A entries and revisions. To be considered alongside the original Q&A I sent a couple of weeks ago (re-posted below), here are some additional/updated FAQs:

  • Is Fox Firm still open and operational? Yes. We are open for business and remain ready to steer our existing and future clients through any entanglement. As a law firm providing essential services to help manage the legal needs for families and individuals facing urgent dilemmas, Fox Firm is deemed to be an ‘essential business’ under the applicable regional stay-at-home orders. Even if our physical office space were not open, we are fully capable of operating our firm remotely and will press forward as usual with achieving our clients’ objectives regardless of the forum.

The only work-item that will be directly affected during the virus crisis is the ability to physically resolve matters before the judge in-person while the crisis persists under this emergency declaration (through May 13, currently). Client meetings, client correspondence and client conferences, case investigation, discovery, settlement negotiations, drafting of pleadings and other elements of our legal representation will continue. We will conduct client teleconferences and use our robust videoconference program.

Possibly, the inability to present cases for judge-resolution can spur more party-to-party compromise and/or agreements to mediate, which could wind up actually speeding up case resolution over the long-term. During this emergency declaration period, judges will be still available to dispose of cases ... just not by way of a contested hearing in Court.

  • Are all court hearings currently scheduled for Court postponed? Yes. The State of Georgia has declared a Judicial Emergency that will serve to postpone all non-essential matters from an active court-appearance docket. See attached Ga Supreme Court Order. For ALL counties and municipalities, all domestic, civil and criminal court hearings, motions and/or trials will be postponed unless the scheduled hearing is for a family violence/TPO hearing OR if the Judge to whom the case is assigned decides that the case has sufficient urgency that the case qualifies as an essential matter.

The designation of “essential” is defined in the attached Georgia Supreme Court Order. Regrettably, clients should be prepared to accept that even matters that may seem mission-critical and ‘essential’ to both the client and our firm, those matters will likely NOT be considered truly “essential” by the Courts nor come before the Court for a hearing until at least May 13, 2020 (but potentially longer). Remember that “emergencies” in this COVID-19 judicial declaration context are not the same as the “emergencies” that we often reference in our requests for “emergency” hearings in our cases. I recognize this will undoubtedly place a strain on those cases that already have parties who find non-judicial resolution impractical or impossible.

We will be working with all of our judges and their staffs to coordinate expedited re-scheduling of all postponed cases on new court calendars as soon as possible. We expect to be aggressive in seeking case re-scheduling ... but since this whole ordeal will create such a massive headache for the courts, I suspect we will all have to find a way to be reasonably patient.

  • Can we try to mediate our domestic relations case without going to court? Yes. If all parties (and a mediator) are in agreement, we can still attempt to resolve cases through formal mediation either by (a) conducting mediation at my office, opposing counsel’s office or the mediator’s office; or (b) conducting mediation through a videoconferencing platform. Fox Firm uses videoconferencing features that allow for multi-party, multi-locale conferencing that ensures that each participant can remain in a separate locale while the conference is conducted simultaneously.
  • When will court cases be placed back on court calendars? Unfortunately, we have no real answer. The judicial declaration of emergency now currently expires on May 13, 2020. However, while I have no inside information, I would advise my clients that a longer lockdown of court gatherings is definitely possible after May 13. This is because: (i) the infection curve does not yet show signs of flattening in Georgia; (ii) parties, witnesses, lawyers, staff, court deputies, etc. who would congregate en masse at the courthouse will be coming from various cities and counties across the state (if not nation) where curve-flattening policies have possibly been non-existent or weak;and (iii) any 're-opening' date must be set by the scientific community, which does not have yet appear to have enough date from widespread testing to know when we can resume normal court operations.
  • Can’t Court hearings be conducted by the Court without parties/lawyers/witnesses actually going to Court? Let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the answer is “yes.” My reply would still be, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” While the technology obviously exists for remotely-conducted hearings, our Courts and Court staffs are not used to operating through these means. There are also key constitutional questions that are raised by remote-only trials. For instance, how meaningful and effective are hearings and trials – and the crucial components of evidence/document/testimony presentation – when everyone is together only in a virtual space? Perhaps some simple status conference type of hearings can be conducted via videoconference or teleconference. But my guess is that the Courts would rather wait it out for a couple of months or so rather than try to adapt to a technology that presents multiple logistical and ‘fundamentals of fair trial’ concerns.

As this crisis deepens and pressures build to have judge decide ‘non-emergency’ matters deemed ‘essential’ by our clients, Courts ARE beginning to accept and slowly move towards videoconference court hearings in some instances. The decision to conduct remote hearings is made on a judge-by-judge basis and on a case-by-case basis. Some less intricate matters raised with the court can be resolved with a video or teleconference with the assigned judge, and most judges are more receptive to doing this than they have before. However, when the presentation of evidence is required (which is often the case when the parties cannot agree on the proper resolution), the Courts have still not equipped themselves to manage litigation-via-videoconference just yet. Things are trending in that direction, however, should this crisis persist into May and beyond.

  • Are there any changes to Fox Firm policy on in-person meetings or office visits? Yes. For the time being, we are not conducting appointments in the office. While certain circumstances may dictate an exception, our policy is that all appointments will be by way of teleconference or videoconference. We have a professional-grade Zoom subscription that can be utilized to conduct simultaneous multi-party conferences (or even court hearings if a judge were to do it). One of the biggest challenges of my videoconferences is the viewing of documents only in the client’s possession. To aid in meeting the challenges of this coronacrisis, we ask that clients do what they can to send us documents electronically (scan, email, fax, etc.) so that I can view them along with the client during any remote conference.
  • Can a client ‘drop-in’ at the office to hand us documents, make payments, provide case updates, etc.? Yes and No. Katherine asks that any client who needs to come to the office please call or email her in advance to advise her of the expected visit. When the client arrives and lets Katherine (or me) know, one of us will come out to the parking lot and exchange materials or information with the client. If a credit card transaction cannot be made over the phone and a client comes to the office to make a credit card payment, we will take the card from the client, process the transaction and bring the card and resulting paperwork back to the client. Please REMEMBER that if a client is feeling ill, showing symptoms or thinks they might have been exposed to the virus, please play it safe and avoid personal contact altogether.

Thank you to our existing clients for your continued trust in our firm and to our future clients, we appreciate you helping us adjust to a ‘new normal’ for the next few weeks (or possibly longer). Whatever the situation turns out to be, rest assured that Fox Firm will remain committed to effective representation and experienced problem-solving.

Finally, please remember the words that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in Fellowship of the Ring (the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy):

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

by Firm President, Douglas N. Fox.

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