CT lawyer: Divorce case backlog is ‘awful’

While the pandemic never shut down state courts in Connecticut, it did slow down hearings for both civil and criminal matters.

Though the courts seem to be catching up on pending criminal cases, family court matters are backed up and have remained so for months, according to judicial branch data.

“I have a significant backlog of cases that we’re trying to get scheduled for hearings,” said divorce attorney Rich Rochlin, some of which have been pending for “a year and a half.”

It’s “a perfect storm that shut down the system,” he said.

In August 2020, there were 8,067 pending family cases in the state. By April of this year, there were 9,148 pending family court cases. That dipped a bit to 9,087 in May, and then increased a bit to 9,123 in June.

The problem, Rochlin said, is “you had basically three to four months where nothing happened.”

With few if any family cases moving through the courts while the judicial branch designed a remote system, new cases kept getting filed.

“It’s awful,” Rochlin said. “The court’s doing all that it can to try and address everything that was backlogged. But it’s not just the old stuff, it’s the new stuff.”

The courts did develop a plan to hear cases remotely, according to judicial branch spokesperson Rhonda Hebert.

“Using a mix of platforms in the beginning and incrementally transitioning to Microsoft Teams, the judicial branch throughout the pandemic handled a variety of criminal, civil, family and juvenile matters,” she said. “This remote capability was essential as it allowed the Branch to quickly adapt to COVID-19’s changing circumstances.”

The solution, Rochlin said, is more family court judges, even temporarily, to work through the backlog.

“It’s overwhelming the number of cases that they have to deal with because of COVID,” he said.

The family court backlog may be easing a bit, according to Rochlin because couples are more willing to negotiate outside of a courtroom.

“There’s a trend toward arbitration and mediation, because of the backlog,” he said.

Though there was a similar backlog of criminal cases as courts began resuming normal activities, the courts are catching up on criminal matters.

In August 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, there were 75,061 pending criminal cases. This past April, that number had grown to 87,748.

“It is important to note that the judicial branch never stopped operations or fully closed all of its facilities,’ spokesperson Rhonda Hebert said. The problem, though, is that “for criminal matters especially, some cases must be in person.”

So-called “Part A” criminal matters, like serious felonies, increased a bit, from 2,908 last August when things slowed down, to 3,171 in April of this year.

“Jury trials for criminal and civil matters resumed this past June,” Hebert said.

Lower level criminal cases had a bit more of a back-up. There were 33,865 pending “Part B” criminal matters in August 2020 compared to 42,482 this April.

Lower level motor vehicle cases, too, slowed down a bit. There were 25,948 pending “Part B” motor vehicle cases last August, and 32,012 by this April.

The courts are working through the backlog in criminal cases. There were 40,370 pending “Part B” criminal cases as of the end of June, and 28,224 “Part B” motor vehicle cases.

“At one point, six Superior Court buildings were open for critical business only,” Hebert said. “As it became safe to do so, operations were resumed in additional courthouses and offices over the next several months, as the branch incrementally expanded its operations across criminal, family, civil and juvenile matters.”