A Glimpse into Family Law in West Virginia during COVID-19

Ashton Bias
Not being able to give my clients hugs has been an unfortunate result of practicing family law in a pandemic.

Not being able to give my clients hugs has been an unfortunate result of practicing family law in a pandemic.

Morsa Images/E+ via GettyImages

If you had told me five years ago that in addition to preparing my family law clients for court, I would be preparing them to have their temperatures taken, fill out questionnaires, sanitize their hands, and then testify in a facemask, I would not have believed you. This scenario is the unconventional and sometimes surreal reality for family courts in West Virginia.

“And don’t forget to wear your facemask!” This phrase has become the new normal in our family law practice. In some areas of law, the parties will not be significantly affected if their counsel continues a hearing for six months or agrees to extend a discovery deadline. However, family struggles do not stop for anyone or anything. Many aspects of family law are urgent, time-sensitive, and, unfortunately, leave children and spouses vulnerable to child abuse, domestic violence, neglect, poverty, and more. Given this reality, family courts in West Virginia had no choice but to move full speed ahead.

COVID-19 has not been easy for any of us. Whether you are a parent working from home while taking care of children, one of the millions affected by layoffs, or merely struggling to learn your way around Skype and Zoom meetings, this pandemic has changed the legal world for judges, attorneys, and litigants forever. In West Virginia, our Supreme Court of Appeals has given family law judges broad discretion on whether to hold in-person hearings, permit litigants in their courtrooms, or require virtual or telephonic hearings. Therefore, every county in which we practice has its own lengthy list of safety precautions and protocols.

I tried an eight-hour relocation of a parent case in the middle of a pandemic. Due to the overwhelming number of witnesses, exhibits, and issues, the decision was made to hold the hearing in-person. After hearing the court’s verdict, all I could think was, “I just want to hug my client.” I will never forget the moment standing outside the courthouse when I had the instinct to hug my client. I immediately had to stop myself, remembering that hugs and handshakes are not only socially unacceptable at this time, but they also put myself and others in danger. I will never get used to this change. I’m a hugger, and I come from a family of huggers. I’m from the south, and it’s just what we do. We drink sweet tea, we wave at our neighbors, and when someone is celebrating something or is hurting, we hug.

Family law can be messy. For some, it hurts. For many, it’s scary. Our clients’ families, children, livelihoods, and safety are on the line. With these sensitive subjects comes heartache, fear of the unknown, anger, and anxiety. Aristotle said, “The law is reason free from passion.” If you have ever practiced family law, you know that while the law itself may be free from passion, the cases typically are not. Family law is personal and is heavily influenced by the parties’ feelings and emotions. I believe that if you genuinely strive to be an exceptional family law attorney, you must be empathic to your clients’ situations. You must be able to relate and sympathize with them to represent their interests adequately. Not being able to offer my clients a tissue or give them hugs has been an unfortunate result of practicing family law in a pandemic. While the new normal may make it difficult, I find pride in how my state has continued to make family law a priority. 

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Ashton Bias is an attorney at Lyne Ranson Law Offices PLLC in West Virginia.