(CN) — For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the public can now listen to Los Angeles County Superior Court proceedings from the comfort of their home or office.
The public can tune in to nonconfidential proceedings on their computer or smartphone through the new service aimed at reducing the number of people in the hundreds of courtrooms across the county amid the nearly yearlong public health crisis.
LA County has endured several tumultuous weeks of record-breaking Covid-19 infections and deaths. Tens of thousands of new cases each day have pushed the region into the throes of multiple crises as a post-holiday surge stresses hospitals and medical professionals to the breaking point. County health officials announced over the weekend the county’s Covid death toll has surpassed 12,000 people.
So being able to access proceedings at the nation’s largest court system remotely is a win for both public health and public access.
"We are implementing this new tool as part of our ongoing effort to ensure public access during the pandemic and to enforce social distancing requirements in Los Angeles County courthouses," said LA County Superior Court Presiding Judge Eric Taylor in a statement.
To use the court's Remote Audio Appearance Program (RAAP), users must create an account and request access to each hearing they want to listen to. The public cannot participate in court proceedings, only hear them.
In early 2020, all 47 courthouses and 600 courtrooms in LA County closed at the first signs of infection in California. The need for remote technology became clear as closures continued, and while remote access has been available to attorneys and clients for a few months now the process has not been without its bumps.
"It's hard to turn. But we've made a lot of turns. We've had to zig-zag, but now we're going straight and I think we're on the right track," then-presiding judge Kevin Brazile said this past May during a virtual fireside chat hosted by UCLA School of Law. "The remote technology we were planning to implement over 18 months is here now. And that's really the future for our court."
Some court cases resumed in various forms over the summer, including outdoor proceedings for homeless people required to appear in person to resolve misdemeanor charges. Other courtrooms ramped up their cases with new infection control guidelines in place.
But even with all the new guidelines in place, the court system requires a small army to run successfully. Roughly 5,400 employees work in the LA County court system and Covid-19 has impacted numerous court proceedings and other services.
Staff now limit the number of people who can attend indoor court hearings. But critics argue that clients and attorneys are still required to attend some in-person proceedings for hours at a time, potentially exposing them to strangers who may have the virus.
Many courthouses are antiquated and courtrooms lack windows, leaving many clients, attorneys and court staff in enclosed spaces. Last year, attorneys and advocacy groups asked for a suspension of eviction proceedings which continue to be heard in person but the response from the court has been measured and somewhat slow despite the raging pandemic outside.
Some criminal and juvenile dependency proceedings have been suspended in recent weeks as widespread infection continues.
LA County has seen over 900,000 confirmed infections since the pandemic began. Public health officials reported 14,482 new cases Sunday and 166 new deaths, with nearly 8,000 people hospitalized with the virus.
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