New data shed light on pandemic-related backlogs

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New data shed light on pandemic-related backlogs

When the coronavirus pandemic forced courts to suspend in-person hearings this year, case filings plummeted, and court leaders predicted that a flood of new filings later this year would cause backlogs that would bog down court dockets for months, if not years.

To be sure, backlogs are an issue for state courts to address, but data from 11 states – the first substantial batch that has been analyzed since the pandemic began – show that the problem this year may not be as bad as initially thought, at least not in those states.

The number of cases filed in those states were notably low in traffic, juvenile and criminal courts. Case filings have returned to normal in probate courts and are not expected to spike next year. Courts may experience formidable backlogs in domestic relations and dependency cases next year, as well as in civil cases next year and beyond.

NCSC asked all 50 states for data and received it from 11, including states with large populations (Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania) and small (Idaho and Alaska), but the sample size is not large enough to make conclusions about the nation as a whole, said NCSC researcher Diane Robinson, who analyzed the data.

Robinson made other observations and predictions:

  • “Civil cases are likely to rise. To take foreclosures as an example, there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get on the right side of their mortgages.”
  • Improved economies often mean estranged, married couples can afford to separate. When the economy improves, as it may next year, expect to see a surge in divorce cases in domestic relations courts.
  • Individual courts in one of those 11 states may experience something different than other courts. That means some courts may experience severe backlogs in, say, juvenile courts, despite what the data show when combined across states.
  • The biggest surprise from the data? “Courts are seeing backlogs, but they’re not huge.”

Although there is positive news in this data, Robinson urges court officials to keep a close eye on their filings and dispositions so they can prepare for potential backlogs that may not seem apparent now.

Tutorial helps judges in ability-to-pay hearings

The most recent Center for Judicial Ethics CourtClass tutorial offers step-by-step intsructions for judges who preside over ability-to-pay hearings. The 35-minute presentation covers the essential constitutional, ethical, and practical aspects of such hearings. The tutorial, which includes additional references, also provides tips to deal with this issue at a time when marginalized and minority communities are having an especially difficult time making ends meet.