Civil cases are going to take a backseat in Maine’s courts as the state presses to clear a backlog of of 8,800 felony criminal cases.

The courts had hoped to return to near normal operations this week while limiting the number of people in courthouses and using technology to hold remote hearings whenever possible during the pandemic.

But with the delay in civil proceedings, money judgments, disclosures, small claims, land use violations and other civil matters will not be scheduled or heard before 2021, the Bangor Daily News reported. Foreclosures will not be scheduled or heard before Feb. 28, 2021.

Those actions will help the state get a handle on a backlog of criminal cases that the state’s acting chief justice called “staggering.” Many defendants in those cases are being held in county jails unable to post bail.

Andrew Mead said he did not know how long it would take for the courts to deal with the criminal case backlog as judges continue to deal with emergency matters.

“Cases that involve risks of people being hurt or killed or that involve constitutionally protected liberty interests are at the top of the list,” Mead said. “At present, with our limited resources, the higher-level priority cases are essentially filling the dockets.”

Thaddeus Day, president of the Maine State Bar Association, and Christian Lewis, president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, told the newspaper that their members are concerned about how long civil trials could be delayed.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, it took two or three years from the time an initial complaint was filed for a trial to be set.

“As these delays continue, we grow more and more concerned about the rule of law,” Day said. “If we can’t provide Maine people with a forum for settling their disputes, it could start to erode the foundations of our democracy.”

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