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Pandemic provides lessons for court system technology

By Brandon Smith, IPB News | Published on in Government, Law, Statewide News, Technology
Every state, including Indiana, conducted court proceedings virtually in the earliest days of the pandemic. (FILE PHOTO: Peter Balonon-Rosen/IPB News)

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a huge leap forward for the use of technology in civil courtrooms across the country. But it also further exposed serious inequities and barriers in the system.

A new Pew report notes that, in the pandemic’s earliest days, every state started conducting remote court proceedings. And lead researcher Qudsiya Naqui said that had a noticeable impact on participation in the process.

“For example, New Jersey reported that their no-show rate for criminal defendants went from 20 percent in the first week of March 2020 to 0.3 percent during the week of March 16, when the courthouses shuttered and courts went online,” Naqui said.

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But that shift to reliance on technology tends to hurt those who don’t have a lawyer and one estimate says 3 out of every 4 cases in the civil system includes at least one party without an attorney.

There are other barriers, too. Naqui said the Pew study looked at nearly 10,000 state and local pandemic-related orders related to court access.

“Less than 3 percent of these orders mentioned accommodations or resources for people with limited English proficiency,” Naqui said. “And we similarly found that less than 1.5 percent of the orders that we looked at mentioned access or accommodations for people with disabilities.”

The Pew study recommends states test technology with actual users, to incorporate their feedback. It also said court systems should improve their processes overall for people who don’t have lawyers.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.