How have courts met the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with new innovations in court technology? And have these innovations made access to justice easier, or more difficult? According to a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, courts across the country have rapidly adapted online and remote services in a time when in-person access to the courts was greatly restricted while at the same time the need for legal services skyrocketed. Almost all aspects of court proceedings have been affected, including conducting hearings, processing filings, and enforcing judgments and decisions.

The shift to online operations and services was completely new for many courts. For example, according to the Pew report, the Texas court system had never conducted a remote hearing for a civil case before the outbreak of COVID-19. However, between March 2020 and February 2021, over 1.1 million remote proceedings were conducted in Texas civil and criminal courts.

The report found that while new technology solutions were quickly adopted in courts nationwide, resulting in increased overall court participation and a quicker process for some procedures, there were also negative effects. New technology made navigating the court system even more difficult for certain litigants, including people with disabilities, limited English proficiency, limited technology proficiency, and those with lower income; especially if they were without attorney representation. Those with legal representation, particularly businesses and large entities, “disproportionately benefited” from the use of court technology:

“Litigants with lawyers, on the other hand, found that technological improvements made it easier for them to file cases in bulk: For example, after courts briefly closed, national debt collectors who file suits in states across the U.S. quickly ramped up their filings, using online tools to initiate thousands of lawsuits each month.”

The Pew report was informed by a database launched by Wesleyan University that compiles more than 20,000 unique state court guidance documents issued from February 2020 to March 2021. This database was launched to help researchers and the public better understand what changes have been made to keep the courts operational during the pandemic.

The data aggregated into the Pew report revealed the enormous barriers faced by people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency as litigants in the court system. These findings are reflected in another report, the 2021 Justice Index from the National Center for Access to Justice, which scores each state based on its ability to ensure access to justice to litigants. The composite scores are tallied from the points earned in the following categories: attorney access, self-representation, language access, disability access, attorney count (in comparison to the number of low-income state residents), and court-related fines and fees.

Learn more about innovations in court procedures from the following: