Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus in CourtsPosted on: September 11, 2020
Why should you be concerned about Coronavirus if you have a court appearance?
You might have filed a court case or had one filed against you and:
- Have been ordered by a doctor to quarantine for 14 days.
- Be waiting for results of a Covid test you took because you had symptoms or have been near someone with Covid.
- Be in a high risk group the Governor has ordered to stay home, like people over age 60, with heart conditions, diabetes, asthma, immuno-suppressed, kidney disease, etc. Heath officials also recommend these people stay home because the coronavirus can be so much worse for them.
- Have someone else in your home with one of these conditions, so that you need to avoid getting the virus to keep them safe.
- Have a fever for any number of reasons –many courts will no longer let you in if you have a high temperature.
- Have been near someone with the virus. Some courthouses have guards who will not let you in unless you answer safety questions before you can come in.
- Not have a car and have been avoiding public transportation because you could be exposed on a bus or when riding in someone else’s car or taxi, OR
- be trying to keep as safe as possible from the virus.
What are courts required to do to minimize the risk from Covid-19?
What the courts need to do is different in different situations. In general, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered that video hearings (such as Zoom) should be used as much as possible for court hearings. Some courts are doing most of their hearings that way.
When the courts require people show up in person, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered the courts must take the steps needed to allow social distancing. Under the Governor’s Orders, courts must also enforce mask-wearing throughout the facility.
What should I do if I am concerned about Covid-19 and get a notice to come to a court hearing?
If you get a notice to go to court, you can call the Judge’s staff (but not the judge) and find out what can be done to keep safe.
How do I get the number to reach the Judge’s staff?
You can find the number:
- On the notice telling you to appear in court (sometimes);
- On a website for the court (usually)
- In the following directory for courts if it is not a Justice of the Peace court: https://www.lasc.org/press_room/annual_reports/reports/2019_Guide_to_Louisiana_Courts.pdf
- In the following directory if it is a Justice of the Peace court: https://www.ag.state.la.us/JusticeCourt/Directory
What questions should I ask the court staff?
- What the Covid screening procedures will be at the courthouse (who is not allowed in)
- What to do if you are not let into court for your hearing
- What to do if you are in any of the situations discussed above (ordered to stay home, supposed to stay home, protecting someone in your home is at high risk, etc.)
- (if you need it and would be able to do it) Whether you can do your court hearing by Zoom or something like that, and what the court’s instructions are for arranging and doing that.
- (if you need it) Whether you could get your hearing delayed for a couple of weeks until you are out of a quarantine, or until you would have your test results back,
- If you have a condition that is at high risk for the coronavirus, whether you can participate by Zoom or something similar as an “accommodation” for your disability, and if not what accommodations the court will make. (Most conditions that put people at high risk also entitle people to “accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
- What to do if you need to participate by Zoom or something like that, but do not have a smartphone or computer with internet to do that, or do not know how to do that.
- How you can get evidence to the court, under its current procedures.
What might you look out for in the courthouse?
- Whether people have their temperature checked and answer Covid screening questions before entering, to know how safe it is being near others in the courthouse
- People should be socially distanced (usually 6 feet), even in line for Covid screening, metal detectors, and elevators.
- There should social distancing both inside and outside the courtroom. People should not be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on benches, or be seated in areas where people have to be closer than 6 feet away when they walk past.
- People in elevators and stairways should be socially distanced, so people are not close together.
- Everyone should be wearing a mask properly, covering both their mouth and nose, except for court employees whom no one has to get within 6 feet of.
- In hallways, there should be markings (on the floor or the walls) to show people where to stand so they are 6 feet apart while waiting.
- Does a sign or other obvious instructions tell people who are not allowed into the courthouse how to alert the court to not take action in their case while they are kept out?
- Check in and Covid screening should be easy to follow, even if you do not speak or read English.
What might you look out for in the courtroom?
- Everyone should be wearing masks (unless they separated from everyone else by plexiglass or no one ever gets within 6 feet of them). This includes a client and the lawyer who is representing them and people in cases, attorneys, the public, court staff, and judges.
- If people are asked to unmask when addressing the court, they are MORE than 6 feet from others
- Courtroom chairs where people wait or watch are spaced or marked off so people are socially distanced
- The court employee telling people where to go in the courtroom is making sure that clients sit 6 feet apart
- Podiums and microphones are sanitized between use by different people
What might you look out for during a videoconference court proceeding?
- There should be an option to use a video conference (like Skype or Zoom), not just to participate through a phone call.
- It is best if everyone else on the case participates remotely, not just you. This puts everyone on equal footing and allows everyone the same access to exhibits, hearing the evidence, etc.
- There should be instructions about how evidence (especially documents) can be submitted. Someone for each side should be able to see all evidence presented.
- All remote participants should be able to see the judge and whoever is speaking at all times.
- If you cannot hear or see part of the proceeding speak up about that so it is “on the record.”
- The judge should not be distracted during a remote hearing (taking phone calls, checking personal devices, etc.
What if I need help scheduling a remote hearing or getting another accommodation?
If you have been told to come to court, but that would mean a higher risk of getting Covid than you have in your day to day life, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services may be able to help you. This includes if you would face a risk in getting to court. (For example, if you would have to use public transportation or get a ride from someone you are not normally close to.) Call our COVID-19 Helpline at 1-844-244-7871 to see if we can provide free help.
What should I do if I cannot login in to my videoconference court hearing or if I miss it?
If you requested a hearing by video, you must provide the court with a good phone number and email address that you will be checking daily. The information for your videoconference hearing will likely be sent by email. If your contact information changes, you should let the court know as soon as possible.
You should check your email often (at least daily) leading up to your hearing, since the court may send information about your case and you may need to take action quickly.
Do not ignore the video hearing. If you cannot make the hearing, notify the court in advance (unless it was something like an emergency hospitalization).
If you cannot connect to the hearing using the information sent to you, contact the court immediately. If your connection drops during the hearing or if you are kicked off of the call, immediately try to get back in. If this does not work, contact the court.
If you are able to connect but cannot see or hear the other people on the call, do not just leave the meeting. Try to let the other people on the call know about the issues you are having by either speaking or using the “chat” feature on the program or calling the judge’s staff while the hearing is still happening.
If you do not connect for your hearing and do not answer if the court tries to contact you, a judgment may be entered against you. This may require you to file additional motion(s) and paperwork with the court, or else lose your case.
Other tips for your virtual hearing can be found here.
What should I do if I missed a court hearing because of Covid?
First call the judge’s staff. (Where to find the number is set out above.) Ask if a decision was made by the court on your case, and if so what can be done to undo it.
If you need help and do not have an attorney on the case, call our COVID-19 Helpline at 1-844-244-7871 to see if we can provide free help.
What if I saw something that was not Covid- safe while I was at court?
People do not generally have a choice about whether they are involved in court proceedings. (This is different, for example from going to a store or a restaurant where you might be able to “vote with your feet” and choose another restaurant or store if you feel that things are unsafe.)
To try to get things fixed you can:
- Report it to the judge
- Report it to the State Fire Marshal, who enforces the Governor’s rules about social distancing and Covid safety. The State Fire Marshal will do an on-site visit.
- New Orleans Area: (504) 568-8506
- Baton Rouge Area: (800) 256-5452
- Toll-free Number for All Areas: 800-256-5452
- More numbers can be found at http://sfm.dps.louisiana.gov/sfm_contact.htm.
- Report it to the city or the parish:
- For New Orleans: You can call 311 to report violations.
- For Jefferson Parish: use its Covid compliance complaint form. The Parish will refer non-compliance to the Fire Marshal. https://www.jeffparish.net/departments/public-information-office/covid-19/see-it--say-it---compliance
- For Baton Rouge: call 225-389-8875 or use its Covid compliance form. The Baton Rouge Police Department looks at reports of non-compliance. https://www.brla.gov/2198/Covid-19-Compliance-Form
You can also call Southeast Louisiana Legal Services if you are in a court case and need help keeping safe. Call our COVID-19 Helpline at 1-844-244-7871 to see if we can provide free help.