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2020 Data Shed Light on Pandemic-Related Backlogs

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) researchers recently have received data from 12 states that show how the pandemic impacted case filings and dispositions in 2020.

The data – the first batch that covers all of 2020 – reveals two noteworthy findings:

  • The number of criminal, traffic and juvenile cases is expected to return to normal this year, and no surge in cases is expected; but
  • Family and civil case filings are expected to swell this year and may challenge courts, particularly in the areas of debt-collection, eviction and foreclosure.

Although the 12 states are geographically diverse, NCSC researcher Diane Robinson cautioned that the sample size is not large enough to make conclusions about the nation as a whole. Robinson and NCSC researcher Sarah Gibson, who analyzed the data, recently published a paper about the data as well as an interactive dashboard.

“Civil and domestic relations cases are so low in 2020 (compared to 2019) that we strongly suspect that these cases are going to come in (in 2021 or 2022),” said Robinson, who added that they have been labeled “shadow cases.” She said she and others suspect that many people without lawyers assumed that they couldn’t file cases last year, or they didn’t know how to navigate the new environment that required a greater familiarity with technology. The “huge unknown,” she said, is how many of those people will file cases this year because they view courts as having re-opened and because they have become more familiar with technology.

Another unknown is how much of the drop in cases in 2020 was tied to the pandemic and the economic downturn. There may have been fewer civil cases, like slip-and-fall lawsuits, because people were out and about less. There may have been fewer family cases because those tend to drop when the economy is slumping. One other area of concern is dependency or child maltreatment cases. Many cases of child abuse and neglect begin with a call to a child abuse hotline by a mandated reporter. Because many children were not in school last year, they had less contact with adults outside their homes. As more children return to school, the number of child maltreatment reports – and dependency cases filed in the courts – is expected to rise. If and when a surge occurs, Robinson said she expects it will be a gradual increase that will begin this year – if it already hasn’t – and continue into 2022.

“I don’t think the dam is going to break,” she said, “but I think there will be an increase in flow.” The NCSC will continue to ask states this year to provide data that shed more light on how pandemic-related closings have impacted court filings and dispositions, and will report on the findings.