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D.C. Superior Court, where the city’s civil and criminal cases are handled, is suspending a number of hearings for the next several weeks to limit public interactions in the midst of a global pandemic.
On Friday, the court announced it “will suspend evictions of all tenants and foreclosed homeowners.” Due to the spread of the novel coronavirus in the District, the court now says all hearings in the civil division that are scheduled on or before May 1 are going to be continued. Parties involved in these cases should not appear in court and will be notified about new dates. New dates will be set for the following civil matters: Landlord and Tenant, Small Claims, Debt Collection, Mortgage Foreclosure, Tax Foreclosure, and Housing Court. Hearings for civil matters can be done by phone if parties and their lawyers agree to it.
“The DC Superior Court places great priority on the safety and well-being of the more than 10,000 people who enter our court buildings each workday,” DC Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin said in a statement on Sunday.
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The court will still be open so judges will be available to hear emergency matters. Other divisions in the court are operating as normally. For example, Drug Court and Mental Health Community Court cases are proceeding as scheduled. The full list is available on the court’s website.
Legal service providers are happy to hear about suspensions for in-person hearings in the civil division.
“I really applaud the court for being forward thinking and picking a date in the future,” says Beth Mellen Harrison, the director of the Eviction Defense Project for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “It certainly will give all of us plenty of time to see how this whole virus in the D.C. area plays out.”
“We appreciate the important, timely steps taken by Chief Judge Morin and the court to create these policies during this time of public emergency in non-emergency civil matters,” says Ariel Levinson-Waldman, the founding president and director-counsel of Tzedek DC, an organization that provides free legal services to D.C. residents who are sued over debt. “It is especially critical during this time that vulnerable D.C. families’ limited resources be available for food, shelter, and key day-to-day necessities, including being with their children during the day. It would be unfair and harmful to public safety to force families to choose between their health and having to attend a civil court hearing while they seek to avoid further financial crisis.”
The pandemic has also impacted organizations that provide legal aid to residents. Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which provides assistance to more than 5,000 people, indefinitely closed its Northwest and Southeast offices to protect staff and clients. This is not to say Legal Aid Society is not offering help; D.C. residents just need to call at (202) 628-1161 or complete an online intake form. Tzedek DC also suspended in-person intakes, but is continuing to help residents by phone and email.
In a letter to the court on Friday, a coalition of 34 member organizations called the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, asked that all non-emergency proceedings be suspended on a temporary basis. Various branches in the court attract dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are in close proximity to one another for substantial periods of time. This goes against social distancing, which experts are advising in order to slow the spread of the virus. The Landlord and Tenant Branch, for instance, schedules up to 200 individual cases a day.
“An appreciable number of our clients and staff are in at-risk groups and have been instructed to avoid large public gatherings. They have substantial concerns about the risks to their health that now accompany any court appearance,” wrote the consortium to the District of Columbia Superior Court and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on March 13.
The Council is expected to vote Tuesday on emergency legislation that would halt evictions and utility cutoffs for every renter in D.C., effectively codifying what the court and D.C. Housing Authority (which serves as the landlord to residents of public housing) are already committing to doing. Some legal service providers are recommending that the Council go further and stay any proceedings for evictions and foreclosures.
“Even if it overlaps at all with what the court is doing voluntarily, I think the legislation is an important public statement from the Council about priority areas and how to protect individuals who will be most impacted economically and also to avoid public safety risks that are just unnecessary,” says Harrison. “Other jurisdictions are going to look to us as well. Everybody is looking at what everyone else is doing to respond to this crisis.”
Harrison says there is also an opportunity for the Council to address other issues tenants will inevitably face given the disruptions at work and therefore income. The Council could, for example, ensure that landlords do not charge late fees during this state of emergency.