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Legal Aid Groups File Lawsuit to Challenge In-Person Hearings -- Cite Covid-19 Crisis

People wait in a hallway last month at the Pasadena Courthouse, appearing for in-person hearings.

February 9, 2021

Hundreds of infections and three staff member deaths shed light on troubling conditions at the LA Superior Court

As Los Angeles reels from over one million COVID-19 infections in the county, attorneys at Public Counsel, Inner City Law Center, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Bet Tzedek, and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County have filed a lawsuit to stop the Los Angeles Superior Courts from requiring in-person appearances for non-essential civil matters. In 33 declarations attached to the complaint, Plaintiffs’ staff attorneys describe handling traffic and unlawful detainer matters while crowded into courtrooms that make maintaining current public health guidelines impossible.

National public health experts describe the risk of contracting COVID-19 at in-person hearings as unacceptable. Dr. Ranit Mishori, Georgetown University’s Chief Public Health Officer, states that the courts are not presently equipped to implement the necessary protocols and practices to prevent or minimize the spread of the virus, and that the court’s administration of in-person hearings at this time is "reckless" and it "needlessly endangers people’s lives." Attorneys describe crowded rooms and hallways, unventilated buildings, court staff not consistently wearing masks, and settlement negotiations that require getting closer than six feet to another person.

"Based on reports I’ve read and the testimony of attorneys in their declarations, it is my professional judgment that continuing to hold in-person hearings and civil trials at this time is reckless and needlessly endangers people’s lives." Dr. Ranit Mishori

The open courtrooms at issue in this case largely serve low-income and under-resourced Black and Latinx Angelenos, people facing homelessness in unlawful detainer actions, or people with traffic citations who, if they were better resourced, could opt to avoid their court date by simply paying off the ticket. The consequences for not appearing in court are severe, from fines to driver’s license suspensions to unlawful detainer orders resulting in homelessness.

While the courts are in the difficult position of balancing their integral role in the functioning of democracy with steep and undeniable health risks, closing the courts is the only safe and fair response to this crisis.

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