A Civil Justice Data Commons
To learn more about the work of the Georgetown Civil Justice Data Commons, check out our website.
THE CIVIL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The civil justice system is a fragmented landscape of courts, legal service providers, and administrative agencies. Like many other state and municipal institutions, most courts have separate requirements, forms, data systems and schemas, making it nearly impossible to access data or to glean any insights from it.
Tens of millions of low-income people, including a substantial number who are not represented, appear in civil court each year, yet there is little information to measure the immediate and longer term effects of court involvement. The pandemic continues to push more families into financial crisis, and by extension into the civil legal system. There is an urgent need to understand the downstream consequences of eviction, collection actions, and other civil justice involvement in order to improve outcomes through evidence-based policy solutions.
We are investigating the steps needed to build a civil justice data commons, in which the data from civil law institutions–courts, agencies, and legal service providers–will be connected to better study the civil justice system. The civil justice data commons will provide access to court-wide, community-wide, and population-level data to understand the prevalence, incidence, and consequences of civil justice problems, reducing reliance on anecdotal or qualitative data alone.
WHAT IS A DATA COMMONS
Our project aims to balance the needs and requirements of data contributors (courts, legal service providers) and data users (researchers, civil justice institutions) in a secure and responsible way. The data commons framework is used widely in health research, securing and allowing research on extremely sensitive data sources. Following best practices from the Open Commons Consortium, our foundational principles will ensure that all data gathering, storage, access, and analysis will:
- Promote access to justice
- Respect individuals, institutions, and communities
- Advance research and scientific knowledge
- Foster trust, integrity, and reciprocity
As we develop a governance model for the data commons, we are considering the implications for data sharing and knowledge discovery. As the figure below illustrates, this governance model is the first step.
Dr. Robert Grossman of the University of Chicago has been refining data commons models for years. In A Data Biosphere, he and his colleagues note that a good data commons is:
- Modular – composed of functional components with well-specified interfaces
- Community-driven – created by many groups to foster a diversity of ideas
- Open – developed under open-source licenses that enable extensibility and reuse
- Standards-based – consistent with standards developed by coalitions
The Civil Justice Data Commons will be modular and open by design. To ensure that it is community-driven, we are interviewing researchers and representatives of civil justice institutions to understand the legal and policy constraints and requirements needed to launch the civil justice commons. We will seek alignment and further adoption of the National Open Court Data Standards (NODS) developed by the National Center for State Courts.
The civil justice data commons will enable empirical research by scholars and institutional representatives, building evidence to guide policymakers and potential interventions to improve outcomes for individuals embroiled in the civil justice system. This cloud-based interface will empower researchers to efficiently identify, access, and analyze clean, standardized civil justice micro-data from a variety of courts to enable and accelerate the pursuit of just and equitable outcomes.
THE UTILITY OF A CIVIL JUSTICE DATA COMMONS
Courts will be able to monitor trends in their civil case docket and measure judicial performance and operational performance. By having access to the CJDC, courts will also be able to compare themselves to other jurisdictions with similar populations. This will allow courts to see how effectively they are operating and provide insights into what case types are more or less frequent in their docket. As of now many courts only have data on how many cases of a particular type they deal with in a given year. With the CJDC they will be able to see the outcomes of those cases and track whether there is a particular case type or demographic type of plaintiff that occurs more than usual. These insights will allow courts to adjust their policies for more effective dispensation of civil justice.
Legal service providers, by using CJDC, will be able to track case outcomes by demography, court, representation status, and amount of legal services provided. This will allow legal service providers to have a richer understanding of the effect of their work. The data gleaned from the CJDC will be invaluable to showing their funders the impact of their organizations through data-backed assessments. Legal service providers will be able to recognize where they are most effective and direct their resources in such a manner as to maximize their positive impact in their communities.
Researchers can gain insight into the civil justice system by conducting analyses in specific jurisdictions or comparing across jurisdictions, and use their findings to improve litigants’ outcomes through evidence-based policy solutions. This saves researchers the effort and frustration of scraping data or writing data use agreements to obtain data themselves and of documenting and standardizing the data for analysis. Research using the CJDC can pinpoint alternative interventions and entry points for people in need, suggest efficiency-increasing service integrations, and help citizens better understand what is happening in their communities.
We are exploring the incentives and requirements that data contributors will have, the rules for data users to request access, and the security and transparency that the data commons can provide. Through our current projects, we have been gathering requirements from potential data contributors and users through a National Science Foundation Planning Grant. We are testing a governance approach with support provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Starting a new data intermediary requires deep collaboration across disciplines and sectors. This work builds on our ongoing efforts to understand and support efficient, secure data sharing with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. We believe that a strong, secure, and sustainable resource can only exist when the needs of communities are considered.
Stay tuned for updates on our progress, and research on the legal and ethical implications of justice data sharing, tying what you see in the headlines with the progress on our project and broader needs in our communities. We will be providing updates on our progress and seeking input to shape the data commons, connect on new data or research topics, and test our prototypes.
More details about the current work of the Georgetown Civil Justice Data Commons can be found on our website. Interested in connecting with us? You can reach us at CJDC@georgetown.edu. We’d love to hear from you!