Tanzina Vega: Over the past month, we've been tracking how the courts in the US legal system have been impacted by COVID-19. It's our series called Justice Delayed and today we turn to civil courts. Around the country, many civil court cases have been placed on the back burner or even completely ignored and some of the biggest challenges advocates and attorneys are flagging, come with housing cases.
As eviction moratoriums begin to expire across the country, millions of Americans are at risk of being evicted from their homes and the process of fighting evictions in civil court has been upended by the pandemic. Joining me now is Judge Fern Fisher, former administrative judge in charge of New York City trial courts, and a member of the leadership team of the self-represented litigation network. Judge Fisher, thanks for joining me.
Judge Fisher: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: What is the pandemic meant for how civil cases are being handled right now?
Judge Fisher: Well, as you just mentioned, in most States, courts came to a screeching halt, which means there were no filings and there were no processing of cases. Basically, many cases are just back burner, they're just sitting there waiting for this pandemic to subside.
Tanzina: Judge Fisher, there's something called mediation. Are we seeing more mediation instead of actual trials when it comes to civil cases?
Judge Fisher: I think it would depend on the jurisdiction. Some courts don't use mediation at all. I would say that many courts are trying to settle cases through what is usually called conferencing, which means the judge or the judge's law clerk, talks to the parties about trying to resolve the case. In New York, that is what's going on right now.
Tanzina: Judge Fisher, I've spoken to a couple of attorneys, one in particular who said, to be honest now is probably not a good time to bring a civil case because judges are also not feeling too great about having to handle these on video or zoom or other non-traditional methods. Are you sensing that, a sense of fatigue or even annoyance on the part of judges who are dealing with this new reality?
Judge Fisher: I wouldn't say annoyance, I think probably just stress. Many courts just didn't have the infrastructure to stop on a dime and pick up technology as a mechanism for resolving cases and so in some cases, judges had to be taught how to use the computers, how to use Zoom or Skype or whatever mechanisms that they have to use. It's not easy for some judges who just are not tech-savvy to switch to the new norm.
Tanzina: Judge Fisher, what gets lost in the, I guess, video world now or the way that these cases are being handled, what gets lost when these cases, civil cases in particular aren't handled in person?
Judge Fisher: Let me point out that low-income and moderate-income people have always struggled with access to justice issues before COVID. Post-COVID or during COVID, the problem is, is that some people don't have adequate access to the technology. They don't have laptops, they don't have iPads, so they're trying to talk to the court by a smartphone or by telephone, they have limited data, so that's a challenge. The other challenge is how good the technology is. If you're fading in and out or the signal drops, that's a problem.
Tanzina: Judge Fisher, some of our producers, who were talking to attorneys and advocates, learned that one of the biggest issues here is housing court. We know that many of the housing eviction moratoriums that were put in place at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, in different jurisdictions, are beginning to run out. How are we seeing housing-related cases right now with so many people who could potentially be at risk for eviction?
Judge Fisher: Again, it depends on the jurisdiction as to whether or not there is a moratorium or not. Some communities will be affected more. Statistics show that brown and Black communities are affected more by eviction and also have been affected more by the economic downfall of the pandemic. You'll see more evictions in those communities, people of low income, but I think we're going to see evictions right into the moderate-income or the formerly moderate-income individuals. My concern is that the courts are so inundated with backlog cases that what we'll have is, 30-second justice because the courts will be trying to clear their dockets.
Tanzina: That hurts a lot of people, doesn't it?
Judge Fisher: It hurts both the tenant and the landlord. This is mainly a tenant issue in terms of eviction, but it does affect small owners who don't really own a lot of properties, so if you have one property and the tenant isn't paying rent, you could end up in foreclosure as the owner. It really is on both sides, but it's also a community story because as people get evicted and places are empty, communities are affected.
Tanzina: What about the ability-- We talked a little bit about technology limitations here, but what about the ability for people to find representation right now because of the pandemic?
Judge Fisher: Well, representation has always been a problem for low-income people and, right into the moderate-income, about 20% of the need of low-income people are met with respect to attorneys. A lot of legal services, legal aid programs are struggling to stay open because of the pandemic, and places where the numbers are high, they're probably still closed and operating by video and that is difficult.
If we're talking about 80% of the population before COVID didn't have attorneys, with the numbers of people who are unemployed or who have no income, that number is going to go higher. Most people aren't going to have attorneys to fight these evictions.
Tanzina: Judge Fisher, let's remind our listeners what types of cases are handled in civil court. We were highlighting housing cases because of the looming eviction moratoriums that are starting to happen across the country, but what other types of cases are we seeing that are getting held up in civil?
Fisher: Pretty much all civil cases. The cases that affect people the most are family cases, child support, child custody, divorces, consumer debt cases aren't being heard, including also personal injury cases, so if you're someone who's been injured, you will be waiting longer to receive some kind of reward from a personal injury case. There are loads of different kinds of civil cases, but the bread and butter cases are housing, family, consumer debt. Those are the cases that affect the everyday people.
Tanzina: Of course, we'll get more into family court issues in another segment here, but that probably means that child support issues are not being resolved. Children may be going without the necessary funds, child custody issues are still up in the air. Right?
Fisher: Exactly. Even in the jurisdiction that are beginning to hear the cases, there is a backlog and so, families will be affected by this slow down in the courts. The courts are doing the best they can. On top of the COVID many courts, they're experiencing a court budget cuts because of the lack of income of various States. For example, in New York, the New York courts are about to be cut $300 million. The court budget is over 2 billion, but when we had $170 million cut years ago, we had to lay off 1500 people, so double that.
The court budgets mainly are personnel, so in New York the budget is 90% people. If you have to cut 300 million, that means court employees will be cut and that means services to the public will be limited.
Tanzina: Those who choose to represent themselves, Judge Fisher, are they in a better position or a worst position given how the court is changing right now?
Fisher: They were already in a precarious position, now they're almost off the cliff. It's, this is going to be lack of attorneys, the court systems are going to be rushed, they are challenged with technology. The courts system is already complicated for people who don't have lawyers. It's more complicated when you're trying to do things by technology.
Tanzina: Judge Fern Fisher is a former administrative judge in charge of New York City trial courts, and a member on the leadership team of the self-represented litigation network. Judge Fisher, Thank you so much.
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