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State court caseloads during and after the pandemic: what we know now from 12 states

March 24, 2021

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic began to severely impact the United States, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is starting to get data on precisely how much of an impact it has had on court case filings. Trending Topics looked at this in May 2020 based on research done by NCSC's Court Statistics Project. A report released March 22 by Court Statistics Project researchers Diane Robinson and Sarah Gibson found (based on filings and dispositions in 12 states) the impact of COVID various from case type to case type.

No surge likely, but possible delay: It is unlikely courts will see a surge in criminal, traffic, or juvenile delinquency cases. This is due in large part to a decline in criminal incidents, traffic incidents, and arrests beginning with the onset of the pandemic. There may be delays in trials for such proceedings as indicated by significant growth in the number of pending cases in criminal and traffic. No surge is expected in probate because new case filings have not dropped significantly.

Likely surge and "shadow" cases: Civil cases, juvenile dependency, and domestic relations cases are likely to surge for a variety of reasons, such as people being unclear that they even could file a case in the last year. Robinson and Gibson projected what 2020 filings would have looked like if they had equaled filings in 2019. The difference of nearly 1.1 million cases are what they refer to as “shadow” cases and could swamp a civil justice system already struggling before 2020 and COVID. Similar "shadow" caseloads are expected in domestic relations (around 250,000), in particular orders of protection once those being abused have more options in terms of leaving their abuser.

Shadow Cases

Active pending cases and backlogs: Additionally, the report examines trends in all five major case categories in the area of active pending cases which is defined as the number of cases filed minus the number of cases disposed. Given that courts already had thousands of cases on their dockets before 2020, cases that often were not disposed of during the last year, the backlog for courts has correspondingly grown. In the 12 states examined, there were nearly 400,000 more active criminal cases at the end of 2020 than were pending at the beginning of 2020. This presents a particular challenge for courts as criminal cases typically have speedy trial deadlines.

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What courts can do: Many of the report's recommendations for addressing a post-pandemic court system may sound familiar to those that focused on caseflow management before COVID-19. These include reducing continuances, actively monitoring pending caseload, and use of data to engage in active case management, etc. Many of these ideas are integrated into NCSC projects and products including Effective Criminal Case Management, the NCSC Civil Justice Initiative, and The Cady Initiative for Family Justice Reform. Ways to track the caseload data can be found on NCSC's CourTools website as well as the Court Statistics Project.

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