Regulators halt utility cutoffs; eviction lawsuits paused as Virginia postpones all routine court hearings

A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia officials delivered a small measure of relief to low-income residents Monday, ordering electric, natural gas and water companies to suspend service disconnections until the spread of COVID-19 is contained.

Meanwhile, eviction and debt collection lawsuits are being continued temporarily under a broader “judicial emergency” declared by the Supreme Court of Virginia, which ordered courts around the state to continue all non-emergency hearings for at least three weeks to protect the health and safety of court employees and litigants.

Chief Justice Donald Lemon wrote in the order that Gov. Ralph Northam had requested the action on Monday.

“This order declaring a judicial emergency is hereby issued for all district and circuit courts of the Commonwealth to protect the health and safety of court employees, litigants, judges and the general public,” Lemon wrote, instructing courts to limit civil and criminal hearings to emergency matters, “including but not limited to, quarantine or isolation matters, arraignments, bail reviews, protective order cases, emergency child custody or protection cases and civil commitment hearings.”

Until Monday’s order, local courts had been taking an ad-hoc approach. Civil hearings, including for eviction, had already been continued for three weeks in Richmond. Others, like Arlington, had continued all civil cases except for eviction lawsuits and protective orders. Dozens more said judges would continue to hold hearings but adopt a “liberal continuance policy.”

Job losses, evictions and utility cutoffs: Being poor amid COVID-19 outbreak

Advocates for low-income Virginians praised the court’s decision.

“Everything we’ve heard is to stay at home as much as possible,” said Martin Wegbreit, the director of litigation at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “Getting evicted is exactly the opposite of staying home as much as possible.”

Utility cut-offs will be suspended for at least 60 days, according to the State Corporation Commission, which wrote that it was taking “judicial notice of the ongoing public health emergency related to the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, and the declarations of emergency issued at both the state and federal levels.”

Attorney General Mark Herring had filed an emergency petition on Friday requesting the action.

“A temporary suspension of disconnections is especially important for hourly wage earners who are most likely to lose income as a result of business closures and social distancing efforts,” he said in a statement.

This post has been updated to add the State Corporation Commission’s announcement that utility cut offs would be suspended.