Jan 05 2022

How the Civil Court System Has Embraced Remote Technology

Civil courts have rapidly embraced technology, but those tools have largely benefited only those with legal representation, according to recent research.

State and local courts have turned to video ministration solutions and conferencing tools during the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the attention surrounding how technology has influenced the court system over the past 21 months has revolved around criminal trials and hearings.

According to recently released research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the civil court system embraced this technology with enthusiasm. The rise in the use of tools for virtual civil proceedings has been significant, according to Pew. It has helped courts stay open, increased participation rates and made it easier to resolve civil disputes, the research shows.

However, the effects have not been uniformly positive, according to Pew. The shift to virtual civil court proceedings and the general uptick in the use of technology has “benefited people and businesses with legal representation — and in some instances, made the civil legal system more difficult to navigate for those without,” according to a Pew blog post that details the findings.

“People who didn’t have lawyers or were not technologically sophisticated would try to go to court to file documents and were sometimes turned away,” Jacob Speidel, director of tenant rights with the SeniorLAW Center, tells Axios “My concern is people who weren’t able to navigate the system and just ended up losing their homes.”

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Technology Has Improved Civil Courts During the Pandemic

According to Pew, which examined pandemic-related emergency orders issued by the supreme courts of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., between March 1 and Aug. 1, 2020, as well as roughly 70 academic and “gray literature” sources (studies that have not been peer reviewed), technology made the civil court system easier to navigate.

The Pew blog posts notes that its researchers analyzed “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.”

Civil court proceedings moved rapidly online as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, according to Pew, despite there not being a history in the U.S. of remote civil court hearings.

The Texas court system conducted 1.1 million remote proceedings across its civil and criminal divisions between March 2020 and February 2021, Pew reports. And in Michigan, courts held more than 35,000 video hearings between April 1 and June 1, 2020. There had been no such hearings during the same two months in 2019.

Since March 2020, 10 states have enabled attorneys to electronically file documents in some civil cases, joining 37 states that did so before the pandemic.

Virtual hearings also seemed to increase participation in the civil court system, according to Pew. In Arizona civil courts, there was 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,” the Pew blog post states.

RELATED: See how videoconferencing helps judges hear cases faster and defendants see less jail time.

Civil Court Technology Still Leaves People Behind

While the introduction of more technology to the civil court system has had clear benefits, those advancements have also disproportionately benefited those with access to attorneys, Pew notes.

“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,” the blog post notes. “Litigants with lawyers, on the other hand, found that technological improvements made it easier for them to file cases in bulk.”

For example, according to Pew, debt collectors who file suits in states used online tools to file thousands of lawsuits each month. However, those without access to lawyers, especially those with disabilities, “faced significant disadvantages, even when systems were technically open to them,” Pew notes.

People without access to broadband, computers and accessibility tools faced significant hurdles in using virtual court tools. “And although technology holds promise to improve the legal system for people with disabilities and limited English proficiency, courts — like various other government services — have struggled to ensure that their technology is accessible to all users,” the post notes.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how videoconferencing tools enhance safety for local courts.

Worawee Meepian/Getty Images

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