COVID-19 court tech upgrades hurt participation by people without lawyers: report – Reuters

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The New York State Civil Supreme Court in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
(Reuters) – The use of technology and virtual hearings by state courts exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, in some cases hindering the participation in civil litigation by people without lawyers, according to a study released Wednesday.
Researchers with the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts examined pandemic-related emergency orders issued by the top courts in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., over a five-month period starting in March 2020 and analyzed how courts nationwide approached e-filing and virtual proceedings.
Pew in a report said that despite courts having almost no history of using remote civil court proceedings, every state initiated virtual hearings during the pandemic to resolve cases.
By November 2020, 82% of all state courts were permitting or encouraging remote hearings for evictions, Pew's report said. Evictions continued to dominate civil dockets despite a federal eviction moratorium in place for much of the pandemic, which prevented only the final stage of the process.
In Texas alone, the court conducted 1.1. million remote proceedings in civil and criminal cases from March 2020 to February 2021 despite not having done so before, Pew said.
E-filing of documents increased, with 10 states joining the 37 plus D.C. that allowed for it in civil cases pre-pandemic. Forty-two states and D.C. opted to either allow notarization of court documents electronically or waive it amid the pandemic, Pew said.
The adoption of technology helped courts stay open and improved overall rates of parties making court appearances and not defaulting in civil cases, but it disproportionately benefited people and businesses with lawyers, the report said.
Debt collectors, which had been briefly stalled from filing lawsuits due to court closures, were able thanks to the new online tools to file thousands of lawsuits in bulk, the report noted.
But, people without lawyers were met with new difficulties, such as those without high-speed internet service or computers who faced hurdles trying to access the courts themselves through the new technological measures, Pew said.
An estimated 42 million U.S. adults lack reliable broadband, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research.
Of nearly 10,000 state and local pandemic-related orders Pew researchers reviewed, none specifically addressed technology accommodations for people with disabilities or who were not English proficient.
"Courts’ advances in technology show promise," Qudsiya Naqui, an officer with Pew's civil legal system modernization initiative, said in a statement. "However, if courts fail to improve existing processes, they run the risk of digitizing their problems rather than solving them."
Pew recommended that court officials examine their processes to identify opportunities to simplify forms and procedures, such as by eliminating traditional notarization requirements, and collect and analyze data to guide their decisions.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.
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