Why We Need Civil Justice Data
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Here are two hypothetical situations that depict the reality of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans in 2021. Unfortunately, the exact number of people facing situations such as those described below is not known because of the current state of data about the civil justice system. At the CJDC, we are addressing this lack of accessible, usable civil justice data.
Lindsay is a middle-aged mother of two. Recently, she experienced an unexpected health event–a heart attack–for which she had to go to the emergency room and stay in the hospital for a few nights. The sole breadwinner for her two children, Lindsay lost her insurance when she was laid off due to the pandemic. With no income and mounting medical bills, the eviction moratorium is the only thing keeping Lindsay and her two children in their home.
A few counties over, the Johnson family has $3,000 in credit card debt. Unable to make their monthly payments, their debt went into collections and was sold to a debt buyer. Now, the debt buyer is suing the family to collect and claiming the debt is actually $5,000. The Johnsons aren’t sure if they will be able to get off work for their court date, and they cannot afford a lawyer. If they do not go to the hearing, the judge will enter a default judgment against them, subjecting the family to an even larger debt, wage garnishment, and possibly bankruptcy.
Living in or near poverty poses an enormous burden in terms of housing and financial security, health, and overall well-being. Eviction rates, at crisis levels before the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to skyrocket as temporary eviction moratoriums are lifted. Debt collection cases, which are seldom a focus of national attention, may represent a quarter to a third of all state civil cases, and that number will rise as the effects of the economic downturn are fully felt.
In this environment, the public, policymakers, and people involved in the civil justice system are asking important questions about the extent to which ‘justice’ is a reality in our civil courts. Should civil courts’ primary function be to help landlords and debt collectors obtain judgments against tenants and creditors? Is the civil justice system protecting the rights of poor people against powerful private interests, or is it entrenching them further into poverty?
We cannot answer these questions, because we do not have the data necessary to answer them. We know little about how courts dispense justice or how court entanglements affect peoples’ lives. In a system where each party is to be treated equally, we do not know:
- the race, ethnic origin, or gender of litigants;
- the extent of biases in the system (or where they are concentrated);
- outcomes for unrepresented individuals relative to those with representation, and even how many unrepresented litigants there are;
- what events precipitate civil justice involvement, or the consequences that flow from it; or
- whether legal resources are being allocated effectively and equitably.
As a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences emphasizes, many institutions and individuals have an interest in filling these knowledge gaps about the functioning of the civil justice system. Filling these gaps, however, requires data from courts, legal service providers, and administrative agencies. There are many technical, regulatory, and institutional barriers to obtaining this accessible, usable civil justice data. For instance, not all courts collect case-level information in electronic form. There are no common standards for court data collection and harmonization, meaning it is nearly impossible to compare outcomes across jurisdictions. Even where good data exist, data access rules often restrict access, and these rules vary from state to state and county to county.
THE GEORGETOWN CIVIL JUSTICE DATA COMMONS
The Georgetown Civil Justice Data Commons (CJDC) will address these issues by developing systems for collecting, sharing, and making civil justice data available for research. It will provide access to court-wide, community-wide, and population-level data to understand the prevalence and consequences of civil justice problems. Our effort balances the needs and requirements of data contributors (courts, legal services organizations) and data users (researchers, civil justice institutions). The CJDC will promote access to civil justice by:
- Increasing the transparency and accountability of civil justice institutions;
- Safeguarding the privacy interests of individuals and communities;
- Functioning as a trusted intermediary among civil justice institutions; and
- Advancing research about the civil justice system.
Courts: The CJDC will enable courts to monitor trends in their civil case dockets and better assess judicial and operational performance. It will also give courts the ability to compare themselves to other jurisdictions with similar populations and track whether particular case types or demographic characteristics of litigants are more prevalent than others. Courts can use these insights to adjust their policies for more effective dispensation of civil justice.
Legal Service Providers (LSPs): The CJDC will allow LSPs to track case outcomes by demography, court, representation status, and amount of legal services provided. The data gleaned from the CJDC will be invaluable in showing their funders the impact of their organizations through data-backed assessments. And, the CJDC will enable LSPs to identify where they are most effective and direct their resources in such a manner as to maximize their positive impact in their communities.
Researchers: Researchers can conduct analyses in specific jurisdictions or compare across jurisdictions, and use their findings to improve litigants’ outcomes through evidence-based policy solutions. This saves them 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.
Modular and open by design with a cloud-based interface, the CJDC will empower researchers, courts, and legal service providers 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.