March 30, 2021
Reuters today carries a story by Carey L. Biron which examines some of the impacts of pandemic-related remote court proceedings on low-income litigants, particularly tenants defending against evictions. Unequal resources, vastly different levels of access to computer technology and internet connectivity between landlords and tenants, and inconsistent or inaccessible procedures for filing answers and other critical documents: these combine in many cases to deepen existing inequities in the civil legal system.
With up to 40 million people in the U.S. potentially at risk of eviction, and with eviction proceedings in many states now moving forward even while the extended CDC eviction “ban” forestalls physical removals, ensuring equitable access to civil justice in the housing courts is emerging as one of the defining legal issues of the pandemic.
BayLegal housing attorney Hilda Chan, quoted in the story, points to the depth of current inequities when she notes that many of the lowest-income tenants lack not only a laptop or a reliable wi-fi connection, but even a cell phone, and may have only a social worker as their point of contact. “How can they successfully present themselves in a virtual jury trial?” she asks. Issues like these are the reason that many legal aid organizations including BayLegal, along with housing rights organizations and tenants groups, are calling for all eviction proceedings to be stayed and pushed until such time as they can be conducted safely.