Steps to shrink pandemic-related backlogs

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Steps to shrink pandemic-related backlogs

If there was ever a time to be proactive rather than reactive, this is it.

That was the main message from a recent webinar that focused on effectively and fairly processing backlogs of civil and family cases, which have surged in some states because of state-at-home pandemic orders. Further increases in caseloads are expected due to the economic downturn.  State courts nationwide, even those that quickly embraced remote hearings, are facing unprecedented backlogs, and shrinking these backlogs are one of the greatest challenges that court officials face.

“You can’t judge your way out of a backlog,” said Jennifer Bailey (pictured above), administrative judge of the Civil Division of the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, in Miami. “You can only manage your way out. Been there, done that.” Bailey was referring to the 2008 foreclosure crisis, which hit southern Florida especially hard.

She and Gregory Sakall, presiding judge of the Family Division of the Superior Court in Pima County, Ariz., provided advice to court officials during the webinar, which can be seen here.

  • Triage pending cases by separating less complicated cases from more complicated ones, resolving the less complicated ones quickly so that the more complicated ones can get the attention they need. Judge Bailey compared this to an accident on the side of a highway. While law enforcement tries to quickly move other vehicles past the accident, emergency medical personnel helps injured people and tow trucks remove disabled vehicles.
  • Get cases that require judicial attention in front of a judge as soon as possible. Judge Sakall said one judge in his court is doing nothing but settlement conferences right now. And substitute judges also can help with that.
  • Look for every opportunity to use technology. Judge Sakall said a recent remote settlement hearing that included someone from South Carolina avoided three trial dates. Judge Bailey pointed out that judges she works with were skeptical about remote hearings, but they now embrace that technology. These hearings should also be embraced, she said, because not going to a courthouse saves litigants time and money, and they can also benefit courts.

“Post-pandemic, we have an opportunity to evaluate what is best suited to remote proceedings and what needs to be live,” Judge Bailey said. “We don’t need to bring everyone to a central courthouse location, which is how we do business, despite the cost in terms of time and fees.”

  • Establish interim deadlines and enforce the in the absence of the threat of trial to keep cases moving.
  • Submit documents and other materials in advance whenever possible rather than waiting to submit them at a hearing.
  • Make every hearing count by making sure orders include deadlines and requirements for the next steps in a case. Make sure every case has a deadline of some kind.
  • Create a database or dashboard that shows the progress of pending cases so that everyone can be on the same page. “Not every court has a great IT Department, as we do,” Judge Sakall said, “but you can do this.” Case management can be accomplished using excel spreadsheets if necessary.
  • Consider using online dispute resolution whenever possible.
  • Give clear direction to staff to make the best use of their time.
  • Review processes to try to identify efficiencies.

Go here to watch the recorded webinar or here to see webinar materials.

It's Data Week at Tiny Chats!

Tiny Chat hosts and NCSC Consultants Danielle Hirsch and Zach Zarnow are releasing two complementary chats about how courts can collect and use data to inform judicial operations.

First, they're joined by Carlos Manjarrez and Dan Bernstein from the Legal Services Corporation, who share nine concrete tips that will help courts make better use of their data and explain the benefits of collaborating with outside data analysts. Computer Corner is back.

In another chat, they talk to Research colleague Diane Robinson to explain the National Open Data Court Standards (NODS) project, and how courts can take advantage of all of the NODS resources to assist with their data collection/case management efforts. Watch until the very end for a stunning development!