Delays, backlogs, and workforce shortages demonstrate the need for a digital transformation to modernize the U.S. court system, according to the 2023 State of the Courts Report from the Thomson Reuters Institute.

The report found that many courts were propelled into modernizing by the pandemic, but without continued investment in digital transformation, they risk falling back on that progress. Modernization is critical as courts deal with the explosion of digital evidence that’s increasingly being presented by law enforcement and lawyers.

Legal Current shares key findings of the report, drawn from interviews of more than 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.

  1. 79% of judges and court professionals are experiencing delays in their hearings. 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.
  2. Backlogs and caseloads are increasing. Among the respondents, 44% report that backlogs have increased over the past 24 months, and 45% say the same about court caseloads.
  3. The 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, and 58% say staffing budgets have either stagnated or decreased during this time.
  4. Virtual hearings are here to stay. More than 80% of courts conduct hearings through virtual platforms, and 40% say the majority of court hearings are now conducted virtually. In addition, 74% expect virtual hearings will stay the same or increase in the future.
  1. Virtual hearings benefit access to justice. 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.
  2. As virtual hearings have 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.
  3. Courts are not leveraging digital evidence management systems. Almost 75% of courts do not use digital evidence management systems, despite this technology having 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.
  1. Digital evidence storage is a concern. With 40% saying they still use old-fashioned tools such as thumb drives or discs to store digital evidence, only one third of respondents are completely confident that their systems are up-to-date/secure against cyber threats.
  1. Physical storage space is a concern too. More than half (53%) of respondents say they opt to store digital evidence in hard copy as well, even though almost 66% have experienced a shortage of storage space for the courts’ evidence.
  2. Modernization needs to go further. Beyond 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 process and store millions of pieces of digital evidence such as bodycam footage, videos, emails, social media posts and text messages.

For more insight, download the 2023 State of the Courts Report.


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