One of the most dramatic effects of COVID was how it disrupted the administration of justice, as courts were forced to pivot to virtual proceedings almost overnight.
Some of those innovations – especially in civil law – are likely to be permanent. But how will these changes affect the way civil lawyers do their jobs? And for litigants, have the changes improved or hindered their access to justice?
To answer these and related questions, the Pew Charitable Trust studied the impact of court technology in 2020 and 2021. Researchers reviewed every pandemic-related emergency order issued by the supreme courts of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. They also looked into how states handled virtual hearings, e-filing, and digital notarization.
Some highlights of their study – along with three recommendations – are below.
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Pew Trust Study on COVID Court Changes
- Civil courts’ adoption of technology was unprecedented in pace and scale. “Despite having almost no history of using remote civil court proceedings, beginning in March 2020 every state and D.C. initiated online hearings at record rates to resolve many types of cases,” the report found. “The Texas court system, which had never held a civil hearing via video before the pandemic, conducted 1.1 million remote proceedings across its civil and criminal divisions between March 2020 and February 2021. Similarly, Michigan courts held more than 35,000 video hearings totaling nearly 200,000 hours between April 1 and June 1, 2020, compared with no such hearings during the same two months in 2019.”
- Courts leveraged technology not only to stay open, but also to improve participation rates and help users resolve disputes more efficiently. “Arizona civil courts, for example, saw an 8 percent drop year-over-year in June 2020 in the rate of default, or automatic, judgment—which results when defendants fail to appear in court—indicating an increase in participation. Although national and other state data is limited, court officials across the country, including judges, administrators, and attorneys, report increases in civil court appearance rates.”
- Technology didn’t always make it easier to navigate the court system. “Although all states and D.C. took steps to allow court business to continue during pandemic lockdowns, those options were not always available in all localities, for all types of cases, or for people without attorneys. Litigants with lawyers, on the other hand, found that technological improvements made it easier for them to file cases in bulk: For example, after courts briefly closed, national debt collectors who file suits in states across the U.S. quickly ramped up their filings, using online tools to initiate thousands of lawsuits each month.”
3 Recommendations for Court Technology Going Forward
- Combine technological tools with process improvements to better facilitate resolution of legal problems.
- Before adopting new tools, test them with and incorporate feedback from intended users.
- Collect and analyze data to help guide decisions on the use and performance of the tools.
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