How Courts Embraced Technology, Met the Pandemic Challenge, and Revolutionized Their Operations

Report by The Pew Charitable Trusts: “To begin to assess whether, and to what extent, the rapid improvements in court technology undertaken in 2020 and 2021 made the civil legal system easier to navigate, The Pew Charitable Trusts examined pandemic-related emergency orders issued by the supreme courts of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The researchers supplemented that review with an analysis of court approaches to virtual hearings, e-filing, and digital notarization, with a focus on how these tools affected litigants in three of the most common types of civil cases: debt claims, evictions, and child support. The key findings of this research are:

  • 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. For example, 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 moved other routine functions online as well. Before the pandemic, 37 states and D.C. allowed people without lawyers to electronically file court documents in at least some civil cases. But since March 2020, 10 more states have created similar processes, making e-filing available to more litigants in more jurisdictions and types of cases. In addition, after 11 states and D.C. made pandemic-driven changes to their policies on electronic notarization (e-notarization), 42 states and D.C. either allowed it or had waived notarization requirements altogether as of fall 2020.
  • 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% 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.
  • The accelerated adoption of technology disproportionately benefited people and businesses with legal representation—and in some instances, made the civil legal system more difficult to navigate for those without...(More)”.