Courts in South Carolina Adapting to Challenges of Covid-19 PandemicSep 21, 2022 05:09PM ● By Kevin Dietrich
South Carolina’s legal community continues to adapt to the chaos of the past 30 months, a period of extended disruption likely unparalleled since the upheaval of the 1860s and 1870s.
Court closures, case backlogs, and a crash course in the importance of technology were among the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which began in the state in early 2020.
Many attorneys, judges, plaintiffs, and defendants are still feeling their way through the period of trial and tribulation, although the situation appears much improved from what it was a year ago.
“The courts haven’t caught up. There’s something like a year-and-a-half backlog,” said Charleston attorney Gregory Forman, a solo practitioner who handles family and appellate law. “It’s going to take a few years for this backlog to be cleared, unless temporary judges are hired, which isn’t something I think the state wants to do.”
Not all areas of law have been affected the same, however.
“In terms of transactional law, what we noticed is that nothing ever really slowed down,” said Leighton Lord, managing partner of Columbia-headquartered Nexsen Pruet, a large firm with an emphasis on business law. “It paused for a month or two, but it never stopped.”
Multistate firm Jackson Lewis, which focuses on labor and employment law, shifted from litigating cases to providing advice and counsel to clients, according to Stephanie Lewis, office managing principal for the firm’s Greenville location.
But cases that required hearings, depositions or trials were delayed considerably when courts closed, and lawyers and staff had to begin working remotely in early 2020. Some family law cases, for example, were on hold for months even after the courts began relaxing some requirements such as allowing status conferences, pre-trial matters, and scheduled hearings to be conducted remotely.
Jury trials for criminal and civil cases were also pushed back as criminal cases awaiting jury selection or cases set for trial were put on hold.
As of summer 2022, nearly all courts in all counties were back to operating under normal conditions. There is still a case backlog, but much of that has been alleviated by judges and attorneys adapting quickly to remote technology.
“We’ve done pretty well in terms of keeping up with our caseload, both in family court and circuit court,” Greenville Clerk of Court Paul Wickensimer said. “We were fortunate to be able to implement technology that enabled us to have hearings remotely.”
Greenville County spent $1.7 million on technology to allow the circuit and family courts to hold hearings remotely. The country had the new tools in place in circuit court by early 2021 and in family court by summer of last year.
Beyond the day-to-day workings of the courts, there were other longer-term ramifications connected to the pandemic, including a drop in income for some attorneys and an unexpected uptick in lawyers opting to leave the profession.
Making headway on backlog
Recently, South Carolina courts began to catch up on the backlog created by the upheaval associated with the pandemic.
Earlier this year, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty directed trial courts to take a number of actions to expedite cases and decrease backlogs.
These included instructing that courtroom space be utilized to the maximum extent possible, courts expand jury rosters and dockets to permit more jury trials and judges continue to use technology to conduct hearings when courtroom space was unavailable.
Beatty’s directive came in part because of the increase in cases that had been active for more than a year since the onset of Covid. As summer began, long-term cases began to decline.
At the end of May, there were more than 19,000 common pleas cases, or about 43 percent of the total number of cases, still listed as active after a year. But by the end of June, that number had fallen to about 8,900, or about 20 percent of total, according to data compiled by the S.C. Judicial Department.
The state’s family law courts have also seen improvement, though to a lesser degree. Through June 30, there were slightly more than 34,000 active family law cases. Of these, nearly 8,300, or about 24 percent, were more than a year old. A month earlier, just under 9,000 cases, or about 26 percent of total cases, dated back more than a year, the S.C. Judicial Department reported.
“The backlog isn’t hard on me, but it’s not my life,” said Forman, the Charleston family law attorney. “And I don’t want to be cavalier about what my clients are going through as a result of the increased wait.”
Most clients were understanding about the disruption, realizing law firms could do little to move cases along when courts were closed or procedures were slowed greatly.
And clients appreciated the savings that came when depositions and hearings were held online, reducing travel time and cost.
One of the continuing issues for law firms is retaining mid-level associates, Lewis said.
Amid the uncertainty of Covid, particularly in the early months, the industry saw a large number of mid-level and senior attorneys leave the practice of law. Some were lawyers near the end of their careers who chose to accelerate retirement plans while others, amid the pandemic, reassessed their careers and lives and decided they wanted to do something else.
“There were older attorneys who didn’t see the point in trying to figure out how to use a lot of new technology and who weren’t crazy about meeting with clients remotely, and they decided to retire a year or two before what they had originally planned,” said Lord of Nexsen Pruet.
As a result, there’s a shortage of experienced attorneys, generating opportunities for those who remain, Lewis said.
“The large full-service firms reacted by increasing associate pay substantially,” she added. “As a result, those firms have captured a significant percentage of associates who were available.”
Today, as the state’s legal community continues its return to normal, even if it’s a new normal, business is strong, Lewis added.
“There has been a continued strong demand for services, and, in fact, there is currently pent-up demand from when the courts were shut down,” she said.