Navigating Vermont Courts in an A.O. 49 World

Gavel Resting And Sounding Board With The Scales Of Justice In The Background

In March, the Vermont Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency and, as administrator of trial courts, issued Administrative Order 49 (Declaration of Judicial Emergency and Changes to Court Proceedings)—also known as A.O. 49.

This Administrative Order was intended as a band-aid measure that imposed restrictions and modifications to usual procedures in an effort to fulfill the Governor’s directives to “flatten the curve.” As a result, the trial courts were effectively shuttered to all but “emergency” proceedings, which include issuance of restraining orders, efforts to release inmates who are ‘vulnerable’ to contracting coronavirus, and arraignments for only the most serious crimes. Pending cases in the family and criminal courts are in abeyance; new filings are accumulating. So, how are disputes getting resolved? And when can litigants expect things to “get back to normal?” There are no clear answers to either of these questions, but creativity and “outside the box” thinking has allowed the attorneys at MHTT to reach resolutions and bring closure for many clients during this period of uncertainty.

A.O. 49 was originally set to expire on April 15th, but was extended to May 31st. A sudden lifting of all restrictions is improbable. Announcements regarding the a plan for conducting jury trials, final hearings in divorce proceedings, and child support cases may not be addressed for several more weeks. In this interim period, unfortunately some parties are taking a “Wild West” approach to disagreements. Stories of withholding parent/child contact, failure to meet financial obligations (alimony and child support), and a general disregard for Court Orders are common. If one thing is certain, this kind of conduct will not be tolerated by the Court when proceedings do resume. We strongly advise our clients to maintain civility and make every effort to handle such disputes with “clean hands.” This is certainly easier said than done, but matching an opposing party with ‘like conduct’ will undermine the goal and possibly result in making a bad situation even worse.

Mediation may prove to be the most effective, efficient, and expeditious remedy available right now, especially for disputes in the Family Court. Mediators are scheduling sessions remotely, with video conferencing and telephonic options available. This approach to resolution is not only preferred by the Court but, under our Vermont Rules of Family Procedure, is often ordered before any court hearing will be scheduled.

When raising children, parents will often be told to “pick your battles.” This sentiment rings true as we await a loosening of restrictions. However, if you feel that you are facing an emergency issue, especially if you have concerns over personal safety and health are present, the Court is open and able to take action immediately. We are here to help present your case to the Court and have had success achieving same-day relief. Please call our 24/7 answering service or contact us via our website if you wish to consult with one of our attorneys. We are here for you.

For additional information and updates regarding COVID-19 and Vermont Court operations, visit the Vermont Judiciary's website.