(CN) — People can begin filing cases again in Ventura County after a three-week court closure that suspended most services and kept the public out of the courthouse amid a record surge of Covid-19 cases.
The courthouse is still closed, but the court is accepting new civil and small claims filings as of Tuesday via U.S. mail, e-delivery, and physical drop boxes located at the entrance to the Hall of Justice and the Juvenile Justice Center.
“We hope to fully reopen to the public on Feb. 14,” Robert Sherman, the court’s assistant executive officer, told Courthouse News.
A sudden rise in Covid-19 case rates spurred many courts in California to temporarily shutter courtrooms and scale back operations in January. Sonoma and Riverside counties postponed civil and criminal jury trials that weren’t already in progress. Los Angeles pushed back deadlines to commence criminal jury trials, and Presiding Judge Michael Bowman in Sacramento issued an order “greatly restricting” jury trials and preliminary hearings.
But those courts still accepted filings. The outlier was Ventura.
Santa Clara County closed its public filing counters and limited courtroom access only to people with scheduled hearings and their attorneys, as did San Bernardino County.
On Jan. 11, the court shut down the majority of its courtrooms and filing counters. It also cut back on hearings aside from emergency matters.
"The only hearings we were having were arraignments and emergencies for temporary restraining orders and things of that nature,” Sherman said.
It also stopped accepting new civil, small claims, probate and family law filings. Even the drop boxes were unavailable.
Sherman said the court simply didn’t have enough workers to continue normal operations.
“It all comes down to staffing,” Sherman said, attributing the shut down to the Covid-19 surge. “We've had a number of staff who have been out since December and it's been hard to operate. We’ve been working with a skeleton crew.”
He said the court had over 150 exposures and nearly 100 positive cases among staff going back to December.
Positive case rates in the county neared 25%, a local news outlet reported, prompting the three-week closure of public buildings countywide.
Sherman confirmed that the court “started taking document filings again through U.S. mail drop box and delivery service” as of Tuesday.
"It's a phased in reopening,” Sherman said. “Starting next week we will resume hearings. We’d like people to do those hearings remotely, but if they can't we will allow them into the courthouse.”
Sherman said the court didn’t have any new civil cases waiting to be processed before the closure, but he expects a deluge of filings in the coming weeks.
“We haven't been accepting any new filings at all, so we expect an onslaught of cases as we do fully reopen," he said. "We don't know the magnitude of that yet.”
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