May 27, 2020
New case filings were down sharply in March and April 2020 compared to the same months a year earlier. In 2018, over 84 million cases were filed in the state courts. There is always some variation in the number of filings, but in a sample of states, the following year over year declines were seen between 2019 and 2020:
Examining the number of filings by week in March and April tells the story. In Colorado, new case filings dropped 25% the week of March 15, compared to the same week in 2019. By April, they had declined over 40% compared to the previous year, but did not seem to be declining further.
The electronic filings reported by Tyler Technologies each week in 2020 shows the same pattern.
The drop in criminal case filings may also be a public safety concern if crimes are not being reported or arrests are not being made, though it appears that cities have seen actual drops in major crimes during the pandemic.
In Kentucky, the number of cases booked showed a marked decline between the same weeks in 2019 and 2020. The effort to reduce the number of individuals detained is the likely reason for the increase in administrative release in 2020.
With the possible exception of traffic, which has seen even more dramatic drops, these cases have not just gone away. Courts will face not only a backlog of previously filed cases they were unable to hear when courthouses were closed to the public but also an increase in new cases filed due to pent up demand. Establishing ways to manage and prioritize the coming cases is essential. The anticipated timing will vary by case type.
- In states with moratoria on filing foreclosure and eviction cases, courts can expect an influx in civil cases as soon as filings are allowed. In March and April, landlord/tenant cases were down 65%.
- Dependency cases involving child abuse and neglect are likely to increase when children return to schools and day cares. Initial dependency cases are down by 26% and terminations of parental rights by 25%.
- Protection order and divorce cases are likely to increase as stay-at-home orders are lifted. Protection order cases are down 33% and divorce cases are down 38%.
The decline in protection order and dependency cases is a public health concern. Previously, economic shocks have been associated with an increased risk of child abuse and domestic violence. The current decline in court filings is likely the result of a lack of opportunities to report abuse rather than a decrease in the incidence of child abuse or domestic abuse.