Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Bay Area Legal Aid has advocated within county superior court systems in our own direct service area, and on a statewide level in support of clear, equitable, and science-supported safeguards against the spread of Covid-19 in the courts. On Tuesday, February 23, 2021, BayLegal Executive Director Genevieve Richardson joined our legal aid allies before a joint judiciary committee of both houses of the California Legislature to make the case for state action to protect civil litigants, attorneys, and Court personnel during the pandemic.
A story by Marisa Dinzeo in Courthouse News Service, “Lawyers Urge Uniformity in Courts’ Pandemic Response,” provides detailed coverage of testimony by BayLegal and our legal aid colleagues on the issues with ongoing requirements in some Superior Courts for in-person civil trial and other court appearances, lack of equitable access to remote appearance fee waivers and technological supports, and other issues disproportionately exposing low-income litigants and litigants of color to elevated risk of transmission.
Throughout the past year, the primary emphasis for BayLegal has been the need for safe, scientifically-sound safety guidelines in civil courts that prioritize remote appearances, continuance of civil trials wherever possible, access to remote appearance and translation/interpretation technology along with fee waivers for litigants unable to afford these resources—and that are equitable in terms of race, ethnicity, and income level.
We know that low-income litigants and litigants of color, and the legal aid staff who represent them, are being subjected to unnecessary health risks due to required in-person appearances. We have also seen that, where these risks have been addressed, a patchwork approach has prevailed, with courts in one county offering robust remote appearance options while courts in an adjacent county continue to require litigants to appear. We and our colleagues have pointed consistently to the need for minimum statewide guidelines for the Courts that align with established California COVID guidelines and safety standards established by public health experts. In our experience the lack of statewide standards has meant vast inconsistencies and stark disparities that have increased health and safety risks and court access barriers.
Faced with the ongoing pandemic and the inconsistent and disparate response to date, we increasingly see the need for the Legislature to establish statewide court safety guidelines that align with California COVID guidelines, such as the color-coded Tiered system that is well known and understood, and to set specific safety guidelines that are led by public health experts. An integral part of any such response needs to be an increased priority on expanding remote access, and a commitment to consistency and full and equal access for all litigants throughout California.