Pandemic-caused court backlogs continue to affect the U.S. legal system

June 3, 2022

June 3, 2022

Pandemic-caused court backlogs continue to affect the U.S. legal system

Since 2020, the justice system has struggled to keep the wheels turning.

Judges and lawyers acclimated to virtual courtrooms, continuing with non-jury hearings and arguments even when in-person proceedings shut down for weeks or months at a time, but these conditions seriously slowed jury trials. Even when courthouses reopened, social distancing requirements necessitated hosting fewer trials, increasing the overwhelming backlog and raising due process concerns.

Tens of thousands of criminal cases are stalled in state courts, leaving some defendants in jail past speedy trial deadlines and straining the ability of prosecutors and defense attorneys to do their jobs. Soaring crime rates in big cities have added to the logjam. In 2020, roughly 1.3 million more criminal cases came into the system than were resolved. Meanwhile, public defenders lost staff to private law firms whose swelling caseloads allowed them to offer lawyers higher pay. Further, prosecutors worried that delays created a lack of accountability for crime and kept court-ordered drug or mental health treatment from those who needed it.  

Civil litigation has experienced similar strain: 1.2 million fewer civil cases resolved than came into the system in 2020. Staff shortages mean courts are trying to handle these added matters with fewer resources, so things take longer, like six months to rule on a time-sensitive motion, or years to review a fee petition or try a simple contract dispute. In places, child support and custody matters may pend up to a year before a family court hearing. Some courts are also relying on automated processes that are onerous for attorneys and don’t compare to a trained staffer for flagging and expediting priority matters.  

While litigators grapple with managing client expectations amid a slew of deadlines and new court procedures aimed at reducing the backlog, courts may lobby for added funding and staff, work to reduce extension requests by giving parties and lawyers earlier notice of deadlines, and continue to conduct proceedings virtually when possible.  

Judges, lawyers, and clients appreciate the efficiencies gained in the virtual process, including reduced costs, travel, and other barriers to participation. These advantages will facilitate reincorporating in-person proceedings. Fully virtual trials are unlikely to become routine, but courts may allow hybrid elements, like remote witness testimony. Investments in technology and awareness of its uses and pitfalls will thus continue to be an asset for lawyers and firms.  

Apart from influencing litigation processes, pandemic fallout will add cases to court dockets, including disputes regarding employees' return to offices, supply chain disruptions, insurance coverage, intellectual property vis-à-vis treatments and vaccines, and bankruptcy and real estate matters as federal stimulus money and tenant protections wane.  

As you wrestle with COVID- and backlog-induced implications for your practice, let LevelEsq help you finance your plaintiff litigation and take case cost worries off the table. With our sword and shield in hand, you can focus on seeking justice and growing your business.  

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