December 8, 2021
by Bill Raftery
Several recent efforts focusing on best practices, including lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic have emerged. On December 1, 2021, the Pew Charitable Trusts produced a retrospective How Courts Embraced Technology, Met the Pandemic Challenge, and Revolutionized Their Operations that focused broadly on:
- The unprecedented speed and scale at which courts adopted technology;
- How that embrace of technology made access to the civil justice system more difficult for parties without lawyers; and
- How court technological choices hampered participants in general for those without lawyers.
Pew’s researchers collected data on several key aspects of these concerns. The first was to look at the orders, both of supreme courts/courts of last resort and lower courts, which addressed the pandemic. Data from the 50 states and D.C. indicated that most states (49) required or encouraged the use of virtual hearings; efiling by litigants without lawyers was allowed in debt collection cases (43), and electronic submission of child support modifications were allowed by parents/guardians (34 out of 44 states where the courts handled child support modifications). Moreover, “before the pandemic, 37 states and D.C. allowed people without lawyers to efile court documents in at least some civil cases. But since March 2020, 10 more states have created similar processes.”
That said, some gaps resulted in instances where parties without lawyers were hindered, rather than helped, by technology. Researchers found parties sometimes did not know where to turn to access these technologies and even if found, could not make use of the technology due to lack of high-speed internet or other accessibility issues. Some states (9) still maintained systems that allowed plaintiffs in eviction cases or debt collection cases (8) to efile documents, but effectively did not allow defendants without lawyers the same opportunity. Furthermore, the general lack of electronic access in rural parts of the country and for some users meant alternatives needed to be created such as drop boxes outside the courthouse for filing. Access to language services and those with disabilities were also a serious concern. Researchers from Wesleyan University examined almost 10,000 court documents and found less than 3% mentioned language access and less than 1.5% contained information for people with disabilities.
The report makes several recommendations, in many instances citing resources by the National Center, including:
- An Evaluation and Performance Measurement Framework for Online Dispute Resolution: Assessing Improvements in Access to Justice (2021) references how courts can collect data on how ODR performs;
- Open Data Principles to Promote Court Technology Post-Pandemic: Key data elements to collect & Report (December 2020) emphasizes the need for accurate court data collection; and
- CCJ/COSCA’s Guiding Principles for Post-Pandemic Court Technology (July 2020) details how courts can leverage technology to help ease the burden of long lines or other similar time-consuming situations.
What lessons has your court learned from the pandemic, and how will it continue to adapt to the needs of its users? Share your experiences with us at Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vimeo.