What We Know and Don’t Know About Civil Justice
To learn more about the work of the Georgetown Civil Justice Data Commons, check out our website.
THE CIVIL JUSTICE GAP
The Making Justice Accessible report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), “Measuring Civil Justice for All: What Do We Know? What Do We Need to Know? How Can We Know It?” identifies essential information pertaining to civil justice in the United States that is required to close the civil justice gap. The civil justice gap is the difference between the number of Americans who need civil legal assistance and those who actually receive it. Although the civil justice gap is a widely acknowledged phenomenon, there is a dearth of empirical data about who goes through the civil justice system, what issues they face, and what consequences these issues have on individuals’ long-term health, financial stability, or other outcomes. Recognizing this problem, the AAAS conceived of the Making Justice Accessible report. Led by a group of federal and state judges, lawyers, legal scholars, legal-aid providers, and government officials, the report explores the scope and consequences of this lack of knowledge about participants in the civil justice system. At Georgetown, the developing Civil Justice Data Commons (CJDC) is well positioned to tackle some of the largest problems identified by the report.
IS JUSTICE OPEN TO ALL?
The Making Justice Accessible report underscores that for justice to be open to all, courts and court processes have to be accessible. To know whether or not courts are accessible it is necessary to be able to determine: the different kinds of civil justice problems experienced by Americans and their prevalence across populations; information about people experiencing these problems, such as their age, gender, income, English language facility, disability status, and race/ethnicity; the numbers of cases of different types filed in America’s courts; and information about the characteristics of the litigants in those cases. Some data—such as case information about the litigants who were parties to the case, addresses, dates, and results of hearings —are already being gathered by the courts, but most courts do not typically collect information about the race/ethnicity, gender, language facility, age, ability, or income of parties. Not knowing the demographic composition of individuals in the civil justice system prevents not only an understanding of the disparities in access to the courts that different groups face, but also prevents the development of targeted policy to ensure equal access for all.
IS THE JUSTICE SYSTEM FAIR TO ALL?
In order to ascertain if individuals resolved their justice problems lawfully or not, it is necessary to obtain information on the kinds of justice problems experienced by Americans and the people experiencing these problems, as mentioned above, as well as how these problems were ultimately resolved. While most courts collect some data on their case outcomes, these data are often inconsistently categorized across jurisdictions, or not adequately tracked. It is impossible to determine if the justice system is fair to all when the outcomes of these civil justice problems are unclear and, even if they are recorded clearly, if they cannot be tied to individuals across race/ethnicity, gender, income status, and other demographic characteristics.
HOW THE CJDC WILL HELP ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS
The CJDC, by compiling all of the data that courts do collect in one location and linking these data to other datasets such as the decennial census, will provide researchers a way to determine race and other demographic characteristics of court participants. For the first time, people will be able to easily compare across jurisdictions to see whether civil justice case outcomes vary for different demographic categories dependent on geographic location. Identifying race and other demographic characteristics of participants is an important step to determining the potential role of racial and other bias in the civil justice system.
HOW TO ACQUIRE ESSENTIAL FACTS ABOUT ACCESS TO JUSTICE IN THE UNITED STATES
The Making Justice Accessible report determined that improving the collection of essential data will help scholars and policy-makers, courts and legal service providers, social services organizations, legislators, and the public itself better understand the scope and importance of the civil justice gap. The authors of the report acknowledge that collecting and releasing such data presents a host of challenges, which include overcoming technical limitations in the capacity of courts and legal services providers to collect and share data, honoring people’s expectations of privacy, and assuring appropriate use of data when it is shared. We at the CJDC think that the solution to these challenges are necessary components of the CJDC.
We will show courts and legal service providers that they have the capacity to collect such data by pointing them to vendor partners who have intuitive and comprehensive case management systems and encouraging them to apply the National Open Data Standards (NODS) taxonomy of civil justice data as promulgated by the National Center for State Courts.* If courts and legal service providers adopt the NODS standards they will begin collecting the sorts of demographic and outcomes data, on parties who come to court, mentioned by the report as being crucial to understanding the extent and scope of the civil justice gap. By linking court records with outside datasets we will be able to figure out the demographic characteristics of defendants who do not show up to court.**
The adoption of NODS will greatly reduce the effort required by researchers to utilize the data and the CJDC will work to facilitate its adoption. The CJDC will also serve to make data readily available to qualified researchers, minimizing the effort to access the data. The CJDC will protect peoples’ privacy by ensuring that there is proper anonymization of any sensitive data used in research meant for publication and will hold researchers accountable by having them sign data use agreements that are particularized to their needs and that require the preservation of individual privacy rights for those whose cases are in the CJDC. The CJDC will provide an easy and powerful privacy-preserving platform for courts, legal service providers, and researchers to start to understand the severity of the civil justice gap, namely who experiences civil legal problems and how those problems are resolved. Without answering those two fundamental questions, we can never hope to achieve justice for all.
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!
*Stay tuned for a future blog post discussing the National Open Data Standards.
**Stay tuned for a future blog post discussing linking disparate datasets for more precise information.