The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Pennsylvania has led to actions by the Supreme Court and Governor affecting court operations and the practice of law in Pennsylvania:
- On March 16, the Supreme Court entered an order declaring a statewide judicial emergency and empowering the president judges of each judicial district to suspend time calculations and use technology to conduct court proceedings. However, the president judges were instructed to arrange for the provision of “essential judicial services,” such as arraignments and protection from abuse proceedings. On March 18, the Supreme Court ordered all court facilities to be closed to the public, but recognized a number of essential functions, including emergency guardianship proceedings. (The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania has a web page with links to both state and county orders resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.)
- On March 19, Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all businesses that are not “life sustaining.” The Governor also published a list of types of businesses and whether or not they were considered “life sustaining,” and the list initially classified both “legal services” and “tax preparation” as not life sustaining. However, a revised list has made two changes:
- Legal services are not considered life sustaining “Except as permitted expressly by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts.”
- “Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services” have been reclassified as life sustaining.
Some general observations about these orders:
- Law firms are generally required to cease operations. That does not mean that lawyers can’t practice law by email or telephone, because the Governor’s order does not apply to “virtual or telework operations.” Whether someone can go into an office to collect and process income mail is not clear. If the goal of the order is social distancing, then what is prohibited is having two or more lawyers or employees in the same office at the same time, and processing mail is acceptable. But if there is a goal of reducing travel, then sending an employee into an office to collect mail is not acceptable. Perhaps the solution is temporary change of address orders (which might then overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service).
- A law firm can operate to the extent needed for an emergency guardianship or other “essential functions” of the courts.
- Although tax preparation has been classified as life sustaining, that classification seems to have been undercut by Notice 2020-18, which allows for a deferral of federal income tax returns and payments until July 15. It therefore seems contrary to the spirit of the Governor’s order for a law firm to continue to operate to prepare income tax returns for individuals, estates, or trusts.