February 16, 2023
Digital transformation critical to the future of the U.S. justice system as new report reveals almost one in five cases are delayed
- 79% of judges and court professionals say they are experiencing delays in their hearings
- 68% say their court experienced workforce shortages over the past 12 months
- 76% say technology such as virtual hearings increases access to justice
MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL, February 16 – The U.S. court system is facing a perfect storm of delays, backlogs and workforce shortages, according to new research from the Thomson Reuters Institute. Many courts were propelled into modernizing by the pandemic, however without continued investment in digital transformation they risk falling back on that progress. This is critical as they try to deal with the explosion of digital evidence which is increasingly being presented by law enforcement and lawyers.
The State of the Courts Report 2023 interviewed over 200 U.S. judges and court professionals to better understand challenges in the judicial system, specifically around hearings, evidence, caseloads, and the role of technology.
“The U.S. justice system is over-burdened and under-resourced. Just as society has been transformed by digital technology, the court system needs to undergo a similar digital revolution to ensure it can effectively keep pace, serve citizens and ensure access to justice,” said Kriti Sharma, chief product officer for Legal Technology at Thomson Reuters.
Delayed hearings, backlogs and resource constraints
- 79% of judges at state and municipal levels say that delays have affected their hearing process. Judges also say that a hearing delay has a domino effect on other cases, leading to an average of 10 delayed hearings a week, almost 20% of their total hearings.
- 44% of all respondents say that backlogs had increased over the past 24 months, and 45% say the same about court case loads.
- This pressure is amplified by growing workforce challenges. More than two-thirds of respondents (68%) say their court experienced workforce shortages over the past 12 months. 58% say staffing budgets have either stagnated or decreased during this time.
Virtual hearings benefit access to justice
- Virtual hearings are here to stay, with over 80% of courts today conducting hearings through virtual platforms.
- 40% say the majority of court hearings are now conducted virtually. 74% say virtual hearings will stay the same or increase in the future.
- More than three-quarters of respondents (76%) say that virtual court opportunities increase access to justice for litigants, significantly up from 55% in 2021.
- Convenience and better attendance by parties are the primary ways virtual hearings are regarded as increasing access to justice. However, as virtual hearings become more of a fixture in courtrooms, challenges have evolved. Low digital literacy, lack of access to technical support and lack of access to the internet are cited as the key barriers to increasing access to justice through virtual hearings.
Modernization needs to go further
Despite the move to virtual hearings, other aspects of the courts’ ecosystem need urgent modernization. While law enforcement and lawyers are increasingly relying on digital evidence for their cases, courts lag behind. They are ill-equipped to deal with millions of pieces of digital evidence such as in the form of bodycam footage, videos, emails, social media posts and text messages, all of which need processing and storing.
- Almost 75% of courts do not use digital evidence management systems, despite this technology having potentially enormous efficiency benefits for hearings and trials. Among those who do not have such a system in place, two thirds believe their court would benefit from it.
- In fact, 40% say they still use old-fashioned tools such as thumb drives or discs to store digital evidence. Reflecting this, only one third of respondents are completely confident that their systems are up-to-date/secure against cyber threats.
- 53% opt to store digital evidence in hard copy as well, even though almost 66% say they have experienced a shortage of storage space for the courts’ evidence.
Sharma said, “Digital evidence is now a critical component of legal cases and action is needed now to propel the court system out of the age of paper files and into a new age of digital efficiency. At Thomson Reuters, our suite of digital tools – such as Case Center, Westlaw Precision, Court Management Service, and Quick Check Judicial – help judges and lawyers make decisions confidently and quickly. Ultimately investing in technology will help the courts run more efficiently and more productively, making them better placed to serve their communities.”
Download the State of the Courts Report 2023.
The State of the Courts Report survey was conducted with 201 U.S. judges and court professionals from Nov. 1 to 17, 2022. The results of this survey are trended against a separate survey, whenever possible, that was conducted in 2021 by Thomson Reuters among judges and court professionals as to how virtual hearings had affected their court system.
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