'These are real people with real issues:' Court backlog from COVID-19 devastates North Carolina families

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- No one expects court to move quickly, and that's among the reasons why many people try to avoid it in the first place.

"Time is my kids," Mick McCarthey, a Cary mom of three, told ABC11. "I miss their birthdays. I miss Christmas. Time is a big deal."

McCarthey is embroiled in a custody battle for her children now prolonged almost indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic; it's almost indefinitely because there are still scheduled hearings on the calendar, but McCarthey said they're almost always delayed.

"I left an abusive situation and it feels like I'm being abused again," she said. "We had a few hearings scheduled, but the courts would open for a few weeks and then shut down again. Even to get filings through was difficult because there was a period where people in the courts had COVID and everything was really slowed down."

McCarthey's originally scheduled custody hearing was in June. The earliest available date now is this coming July.

"I haven't spoken to my children in so long. It's exhausting," she said. "I worry they'll be strangers when I see them again because it's been so long. The longer that goes the more time I'm missing out on their childhoods."

This case, sadly, is just one among more than 10,000 cases pending in District Civil courts across North Carolina, and that's 10,000 cases on top of a typical, pre-COVID caseload clogging the system.

The prolonged drama exacts a toll not just on a family's emotional wellbeing; the continued continuances can be financially devastating.

"Even in the best of times before COVID, having a continuance is a financial hit," Susan Goetcheus, a family law attorney in Raleigh, explained to ABC11. "You get ready for that particular hearing date and then if you get continued you can't just freeze all of the issues."

According to Goetcheus, it's imperative for attorneys to also keep tabs on new developments during the impasse.

"Everything is still happening, right?" She said. "There's always new events and new evidence, and you have to include all the new things that are happening so in large part, sometimes you're basically starting over to really put your case together every time that you approach a new setting. While Family Court and the District Civil court may be its own beast, an ABC11 I-Team investigation found a COVID backlog growing into a full blockade across the entire judicial system.

In North Carolina, there are 9,168 DWI cases pending - up more than 1,600 since December 2020. In Superior Court, pending felony cases now number 20,682, a nearly 25% increase since the end of last year.

The most striking delays, however, are in District Criminal and Infractions, with a pending caseload of 149,151 -- including a spike of more than 50,000 in just two months.

Paul Newby, the newly elected Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, is the head of the Judicial Branch.

"These are real people with real issues and they need to have their problems addressed," Chief Justice Newby told ABC11. "First and foremost we have a constitutional requirement that the courts shall be open and justice shall be rendered without delay. That's right in our constitution. Shame on us if we're not fulfilling the constitutional requirement.

On April 9th, Newby extended several Emergency Directives for the courts, including requiring for face coverings and allowing some remote hearings. The Chief Justice said courts across the state are also extending hours, utilizing different spaces, and even calling retired judges to come off the bench to go back to the bench.

"I have always been concerned that justice delayed is justice denied and sadly we're seeing that today," he said.

Many challenges remain, however, including the fact that most courthouses are outdated when it comes to modern technology and physical distancing.

"At six feet, you can't put a jury in a jury box," Newby said. "If you put the jury in the courtroom, what about the spectators? Courts are open."

There is also a fine line between due process and doing something new.

"It's a hard thing for a witness to testify virtually because you don't know who's in the courtroom with them," Newby said. "At what point does due process require the face-to-face encounters?

For Mick McCarthey, the next encounter with her kids is all she dreams about. If she wins her case, it will be worth the wait.

"I know I'll see them again. I have to," she said. "They're my kids."
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