In early 2021, one Texas attorney went viral on YouTube after declaring during a trial that he was “not a cat.” The attorney, who had been participating in a case before the 394th district of Texas, had been unable to disable a filter that made him appear like a cat for the meeting. This was arguably one of the funniest moments to come out of post-COVID court hearings, but it was by no means the most telling. For starters, the video came from a case in progress. Many other cases were stalled.
While some people and organizations have long argued that the federal courts are overdue for expansion, the COVID pandemic taxed them past their limits. Courts shut down across the nation, leading to massive case backlogs. The courts are still struggling to catch up, but the effects of the pandemic stretched beyond the backup.
“Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied”
A 2021 report from Thomson Reuters explored the “unprecedented” challenges that the court system faced with the COVID pandemic. Among its findings was a survey of how much the pandemic had affected court backlogs. This survey relied on responses from more than 238 people from courts at the state, county and municipal levels.
Their responses shed light on how much the courts’ backlogs had increased over 12 months:
- The average backlog for state cases rose from 1,030 to 1,430, a 39% increase
- The average backlog for county and municipal cases rose from 828 to 940, a 13.5% increase
- 38% of respondents said the backlog in state cases had “increased greatly”
Meanwhile, the website for the United States Courts houses the annual federal judicial caseload statistics. The statistics for 2021 show that civil filings in U.S. district courts increased by 39 percent from 2020. Indeed, the courts saw an increase in filings for each year since 2018. At the same time, the courts were able to resolve fewer of these cases. The number of cases terminated in the district courts dropped from 2019 to 2020 and then dropped more steeply from 2020 to 2021.
The result is that courts across the nation have seen increased backlogs. These have not been universal. Some courts have seen fewer filings. However, most courts continue to struggle. They continue to receive new filings even as they continue to amend their policies for COVID and track COVID cases among their staff. As the courts try to catch up on their backlogs, their delays have the potential to harm the people and businesses who see their motions and trial dates kicked down the road.
The Pandemic Has Helped Reshape The Court System
The pandemic did more than force courts to shut down temporarily. It forced them to adapt. A report from Pew Charitable Trusts pointed out three key ways that the pandemic has affected the court system:
- Courts adopted technologies for remote filings and hearings at a record pace
- Online technologies improved participation rates in civil cases
- The use of remote technologies disproportionately favored those with money and representation
While it takes little imagination to understand how the pandemic spurred the adoption of new technologies, it’s worth remembering that this rapid adoption does not come without some bumps. In addition to attorneys attending hearings with cat filters on their video feeds, you have real concerns about court procedures.
As the Thomson Reuters report noted, many people faced new challenges during the shift to remote hearings. These focused largely around witnesses and expert testimony. The report also addressed concerns about the presentation of evidence:
- 39% of respondents claimed they found it “very challenging” or “challenging” to share evidence, and another 28% found it moderately challenging
- There were similar numbers of respondents who found it very challenging or challenging to access, organize or communicate on annotations on evidence
- 32% of respondents found it very challenging or challenging simply to access the multimedia files they needed for their cases
These numbers highlight the importance of adapting to the modern court system. This is especially true given that the courts appear poised to make many of their changes permanent. Thomson Reuters found that over half of civil courts (57%) planned to conduct virtual hearings in the future.
Meanwhile, these changes have made it easier for many people to access the court system, and the reduced need for travel has led to a drop in default judgments. Pew Charitable Trusts reported that civil defaults dropped by 8% in Arizona, and Thomson Reuters reported that 42% of respondents said the adoption of remote technologies made it easier for people to engage with the courts.
Businesses Need To Consider Every Available Option
There is no doubt that the past few years have challenged the courts. When the courts struggle to process their cases, those delays can have real, financial consequences. That is the position in which we find ourselves today. The courts are not yet caught up. Even though civil courts are making use of virtual hearings at an unprecedented rate, plaintiffs may face lengthy delays for trials or even motions.
Accordingly, business owners and others who want to address their concerns through civil litigation want to work with attorneys prepared to pursue every option. Immediate actions such as restraining orders and injunctions may help stop the bleeding until it’s possible to pursue greater justice.
Organizations like the Center for American Progress Action Fund have called for an expansion of the court system. An expansion could potentially ease the burden on individual courts and speed things up. However, such an expansion seems unlikely at this time. For now, businesses would be wiser to anticipate legal delays and more highly engaged opponents.