For months now, Los Angeles Superior Courts have required in-person appearances for civil cases that overwhelmingly involve low-income litigants. Despite soaring infection rates, low-income litigants and their legal aid attorneys must report in-person to court regularly for traffic and eviction trials—cramming into crowded hallways and unventilated courtrooms where safety protocols seem to depend on the whim of the judge—even as the court has postponed other matters, like criminal trials.
Earlier this month, NLSLA joined its legal services partners—Public Counsel, Bet Tzedek, LAFLA and Inner City Law Center—in filing a lawsuit to stop this dangerous and unnecessary requirement.
“The communities we serve are already suffering the worst consequences of this pandemic, with rates of serious illness and death several times higher than those in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods,” said NLSLA Supervising Attorney Trinidad Ocampo, who participated in a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “The Los Angeles Superior Court, as the guardian of justice, should be trying to mitigate these inequalities, not exacerbate them.”
Eviction cases overwhelmingly impact poor people of color, and traffic cases force impoverished defendants to come to court for hearings while wealthier defendants can afford to simply pay the fines.
Three court employees died of COVID-19 in January, but there is no way to know how many litigants have gotten sick or died, since the court does not keep track.
The clients NLSLA represents are especially vulnerable to developing serious complications from the coronavirus. Many are elderly or disabled. And an overwhelming percentage suffer from underlying health conditions that are a result of a life-long lack of access to appropriate healthcare.
“The Court’s COVID motto is ‘Here for you, Safe for you,’” Ocampo said. “Yet I know from my own experience of having to go to court that it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.