Pandemic spurs technological revolution in state civil courts
With courthouses closed by COVID-19, civil legal systems in nearly every state have quickly adopted new tools to support online operations, a decisive response that has given millions of Americans access to the courts and resolve legal issues despite the pandemic. But like all transformative change, this effort has not been without challenges. Now a new report of The Pew Charitable Trusts examines the successes, stumbles and lessons learned from a historic year in state civil courts.
Even before COVID-19 hit, digital tools carried the promise of a more open legal system, with clear and understandable procedures; fair, allowing all users to assert their rights and resolve disputes; and efficient, ensuring due process and providing easy and timely interactions. In particular, online tools have the potential to help a small group of litigants, those who do not have a lawyer.
Because civil courts do not provide lawyers for those who cannot afford them, about 30 million Americans each year must navigate life-changing legal issues on their own, including eviction, debt collection and child support. As the pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by courts, national groups, such as the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, appeal to the courts adopt technology to improve the court experience for all users.
Pew researchers sought to understand the nature and impact of the deployment of technological tools by the courts, in particular the electronic filing (e-filing) of legal documents, the virtual platforms allowing people to appear before judges on Internet and electronic notarization (e-notarization). They found that courts have adopted technological tools at an unprecedented rate and scale, that they have taken advantage of the new tools to increase litigant participation and improve efficiency, and that the changes have benefited significantly. disproportionate to litigants with legal representation and have sometimes created new problems for those without a lawyer.
Although they have virtually no history of using virtual proceedings, as of March 2020, civil courts in every state and Washington, DC, have launched online hearings at record rates. For example, Texas courts had never held a remote civil hearing before the pandemic but did over a million in its civil and criminal divisions from March 2020 to February 2021. Similarly, Michigan courts held more than 35,000 video hearings from April 1 to June 1, 2020, compared with no such hearing during the same two-year period. months in 2019.
Before the pandemic, 37 states and DC allowed people without a lawyer to electronically file court documents in at least some civil cases, but since March 2020, 10 more states have created e-filing processes in line with Pew’s review of the orders emergency state courts in the event of a pandemic. Additionally, 11 states and DCs have made changes to their policies on electronic notarization due to a pandemic, bringing to 42 the number of states, plus DC, that allow electronic notarization or have waived their requirements. of notarization.
And although national data is limited, court officials and practitioners across the country, including judges and lawyers, report an increase in appearance rates in civil courts. In In Arizona, for example, civil courts saw an 8% year-over-year decline in the default rate, or automatic judgment – which occurs when defendants do not appear in court – from June 2019 to June 2020, indicating an increase in attendance.
Besides, digital options implemented by states were not always available in all localities, for all types of cases, or for those without a lawyer. Online tools have made it easier for litigants with lawyers to file mass cases, but those without representation, especially those with other accessibility needs, often were unable to access the new systems.. For example, national debt collectors increased their deposits using digital tools to initiate thousands of lawsuits each month, but litigants who were among the 42 million Americans without broadband internet service have struggled to access new online court services.
Additionally, many new state court technologies were not designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities or with limited English proficiency, two populations that have often been overlooked in the design and implementation. implementation of legal systems and procedures. As part of his analysis, Pew examined nearly 10,000 state and local orders related to a pandemic, compiled by a team of researchers at Wesleyan University, and found that none of the orders specifically related to technological improvements for these groups.
To address these challenges and realize the full potential of these technology investments, Pew recommends that state courts take three key steps: Combine technology with process improvements to better facilitate resolution of legal issues, integrate user feedback from courts and test technology products with intended users before adopting them, and collect and analyze data to help guide decisions about the use and performance of technology solutions. As legal systems continue to modernize and embrace even more online operations, the thoughtful implementation of digital tools will be essential to ensure courts are open, fair and efficient.
Erika Rickard is the Director and Qudsiya Naqui is an Officer of The Pew Charitable Trusts Civil Legal Modernization Project.