COVID and the Courts

The courts backlog caused by the pandemic has brought the axiom "justice delayed is justice denied" to the forefront. California courts must find a way that justice for civil litigants does not grind to a halt.

The COVID-19 pandemic has peeled back the curtain on California’s struggle to ensure everyone has access to equal justice. Each county created its own set of jurisdictional rules in response to the pandemic, a lack of uniformity that now has California’s civil justice system on the brink of a total meltdown.

The root of this crisis can be traced back to 1849, when the first California constitution gave the state’s far-flung counties a high level of autonomy – including operation of the local courthouse. What may have made political sense then has become a catastrophic civil justice crisis as COVID-19 exposes counties’ uneven response.

Californians who have already suffered through months-long delays in civil cases deserve their day in court. It’s their right. As the courts begin to reopen and tackle the backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, civil litigants could be shut out of trial for an entire year or more – forced to wait until late 2021 and beyond to see justice served. This is unacceptable, especially given the stakes for aggrieved individuals and businesses suffering prolonged financial uncertainty.

The “justice delayed is justice denied” axiom rings truer than ever under the current circumstances. California courts must find a way to ensure that justice for civil litigants does not grind to a halt. Courts need specificity and guidance from the legislature to establish a uniform baseline throughout the state to ensure a fair balance of access to justice for civil cases.

●    Modernization of Court Operations

On March 28, 2020, California’s Judicial Council directed the superior courts to “...make use of available technology, when possible, to conduct judicial proceedings and court operations remotely…” Unfortunately, adoption of technology to conduct proceedings has been uneven despite the Judicial Council’s directive. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is critical that we establish remote access to the courts immediately. When remote hearings cannot occur, cases are unacceptably delayed or denied and people’s rights are often violated.

●    COVID-19 Backlog: Rescheduling of Civil Jury Trials

Civil litigants who have lost their jobs, face crushing medical bills, have a family crisis, or are suffering other hardships must have their day in court without having to wait months or even years. As criminal courts reopen, a reasonable number of civil courtrooms must reopen too, because California must not send a signal that justice in criminal cases is more important than justice in civil cases. Therefore, we need statewide guidelines that govern California’s approach to reducing both criminal and civil court backlogs – including civil rights, elder abuse, business, torts, family and juvenile dependency cases – to make sure no one gets left behind.