36th district court
Detroit's 36th District Court will allow parties to appear virtually to first hearings in eviction and other landlord-tenant cases. (Photo by Nushrat Rahman)

Detroit’s 36th District Court will once again allow virtual hearings in eviction cases at the end of the month, but only for the first hearings.

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

The announcement comes a month after the court resumed in-person eviction hearings to address an influx of filings. The decision at the time received fierce push back from tenant advocates who said low-income tenants would struggle to make it out to court and stay housed.

Virtual first hearings will resume July 31, the court said in a Wednesday news release. Subsequent hearings will still take place in person.

Housing advocates said requiring in-person hearings could lead to more default judgments against tenants, at a time when evictions are already increasing. They also said the move would make it difficult for attorneys representing low-income Detroiters to provide the free legal aid they are required to offer under a city ordinance.

When a tenant doesn’t appear on their court date, a default judgement is issued in favor of the landlord. In 36th District Court, if a tenant fails to show up for two hearings, the judge can issue that default.

The decision to go virtual comes after “sufficient improvements” during a trial in-person period, according to a news release.

Initial data shows improved appearance rates and the default rate didn’t spike, the court said. The default rate for landlord-tenant cases was 23% in June when they were held in person. That’s on par with the default rate for virtual hearings from January to May of this year.

“It is our determination that the major benefits of in-person proceedings are not largely seen at the first hearings as they are at the successive proceedings, and as such, virtual first hearings will resume,” the statement said.

In a statement to the Free Press earlier this week, Chief Judge William McConico said during the pilot in-person period the court has seen more swift hearings, documents being readily available in real time and litigants leaving hearings with orders depending on the case outcome.

Tenant advocates have said the move back into the courthouse would lead to fewer attorneys from legal aid groups being able to assist clients. Detroit’s right to counsel ordinance requires free lawyers for low-income Detroiters who face eviction.

The switch back to virtual first hearings will help implement those services, according to the court.

“Such efforts are essential, and the Court recognizes the benefit that virtual first hearings will have on their success,” the court said.

Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right to Counsel Coalition, applauded the decision to allow virtual first hearings because it relieves hardships for Detroiters who are already struggling.

“The mandatory in-person hearings over the last 30 days led to a 43% decrease in the number of persons who could connect with a Right to Counsel attorney and have legal representation while facing eviction,” she said in a Wednesday statement.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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