Picture: 123RF/ANDIA FAITH
Picture: 123RF/ANDIA FAITH

Washington — Lori Livingston had been waiting for an eviction hearing since last May, when her original date was postponed as the coronavirus pandemic forced Philadelphia’s courts to close. But when proceedings recently started up again, the disabled 66-year-old was surprised to get a court summons late in the day on March 12, a Friday, for a remote hearing early the following Monday.

“I got a one-day notice,” she said, hours after her hearing took place.

The judge and landlord participated by videoconference, but the camera on Livingston’s computer was broken and she could not get a video connection on her phone, so she had to call in.

She also did not have time to get formal legal representation, and the e-filing system she was supposed to use to submit her evidence was down throughout the weekend, she said. “It feels like I didn’t have a voice. I might [as well] have not even showed up.”

Legal aid workers say the problems Livingston faced are affecting eviction hearings across the US as courts move proceedings online, making the process slower and more confusing, and further weakening the tenant’s voice.

Hilda Chan, a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid in California, said the shift to remote hearings automatically puts tenants at a disadvantage. “Landlords have resources. They have easy access to their own attorney, but also a laptop, internet. Those are a given for the landlord but not for tenants who are struggling to maintain rent,” she said.

Chan said she and her colleagues work with some clients who do not have cellphones and whose only point of contact is often a social worker. “How can they successfully present themselves in a virtual jury trial?” 

A spokesperson for the first judicial district of Pennsylvania confirmed that part of the computer system for the Philadelphia courts was down over the weekend.

The judge in Livingston’s case gave her 30 days to vacate the property, though she is looking into her legal options. A spokesperson for the US department of housing and urban development (HUD) was not available to comment.

‘Broken’ system

Evictions during the pandemic have been governed by a muddle of rules and bans at the local and federal levels. Some groups, including the Aspen Institute think-tank, have estimated up to 40-million people are at risk of eviction in the US.

On Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended to end-June a nationwide order to prevent millions of US renters from being evicted amid the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the eviction freezes outlawed the physical expulsion of most tenants, they did not halt the filing of evictions and the related legal process. “The pandemic has forced the justice system to re-imagine how we conduct court hearings and has accelerated the use of new technologies,” Patricia Lee Refo, president of the American Bar Association, said.

Remote judicial access can be a boon to marginalised communities by ensuring people do not have to travel long distances or wait in crowded courthouses, Refo said, “but we need to be vigilant about the unintended problems inherent to virtual proceedings — starting with the reality that many people lack ... reliable internet access.”

Many tenants are not even getting to that point, however.

“We have 40,000 tenant households who have not answered their proceedings, and not answering means they’re on track to have a default entered against them and proceed to a warrant,” said Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the civil law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society in New York City. “A lot of it has to do with difficulty accessing the courts at this time.”

New York courts have opened phone lines for those struggling to get online, but Goldiner said those are frequently overloaded. “That system has totally broken down in a way that could lead to massive evictions.” 

The New York State unified court system did not respond to a request for comment.

“There doesn’t seem to be a plan in place to address these issues, for example, public Wi-Fi, device distribution, or shifts in the procedure,” said Debra Puzzo, co-director of the housing programme at the Tenant Resource Center in Madison, Wisconsin. “There are dropped calls, struggles with Zoom, and connection issues for the court officials themselves, sometimes resulting in a confusing cacophony.” 

Those issues have been especially problematic for non-English speakers, she noted. The number of people who have lost housing due to simply being unable to connect to their eviction hearings is unknown, Puzzo added.

Constitutional concerns

There may also be constitutional concerns in remote eviction hearings, according to a case filed in St Louis, Missouri, by ArchCity Defenders in August.

Eddie Logan, a military veteran, lost an eviction trial by phone after being unable to submit evidence or access hearings by videoconference, said Lee Camp, a staff attorney with the legal aid charity.

“He couldn’t see the judge, the landlord, the opposing attorney,” Camp said. “That puts you at a disadvantage to fully interrogate the evidence brought against you, to cross-examine the opposing party, to let the court judge your credibility by looking at you.”

Eventually, Logan’s case was overturned by the Missouri supreme court, Camp said, but only after multiple attorneys assisted Logan for more than a month — “a massive amount of resources for one individual to ensure they had a fair day in trial”.

The US constitution mandates that people have a right to a full and fair trial before the government can take away property, Camp said, and “it is impossible to have that full, fair and meaningful hearing through this virtual court”.

But there are also problems with the main alternative: in-person hearings. Before the pandemic, housing court was typically a crowded, chaotic place, said Chan of Bay Area Legal Aid.

“You have whole families, babies, folks in walkers, attorneys going back and forth,” she said, noting jury trials require 20 people from different households to congregate in a courtroom for days on end. “What we really think should be happening now is for all eviction cases to be stayed and pushed until we can do these safely.” 

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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