Table of Contents
In the United States, the civil court system has undergone significant changes in recent years. Traditional legal processes designed for lawyers are now dominated by business-to-consumer cases, where companies with attorneys sue individuals without legal representation. This shift has raised concerns about the ability of unrepresented litigants to navigate complex court processes and participate effectively in their cases. As a result, there is a growing need for court modernization and reform to ensure that the legal system is accessible, effective, and equitable for all users.
The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the need for court modernization as courts were forced to adapt to lockdowns and move services online. This sudden change accelerated the adoption of electronic filing, video and telephone hearings, and other digital innovations. However, the financial and capacity demands of maintaining these new systems, as well as the lack of consensus on how to measure progress, have presented new challenges to court modernization efforts.
To address these issues and support court leaders in their efforts to improve the civil legal system, The Pew Charitable Trusts has developed a reform framework based on three principles: openness, effectiveness, and equity. These principles intersect and overlap, and they must inform each other to bring about meaningful change. The framework provides courts with a roadmap to modernization by transforming their values, treatment of court users, and goals.
The Framework: Openness, Effectiveness, and Equity
An open court is committed to transparency, continuous improvement, and information sharing. It invests in practices that enhance user engagement and accessibility. To promote openness, courts should:
- Collect and use data intentionally to increase transparency, effectiveness, and equity
- Improve public trust and confidence by making information about court operations more accessible
- Pursue funding and improve grant management by using data to support funding requests and evaluate program effectiveness
- Help court users access necessary information about their cases by making critical documents and materials available in an accessible format
- Engage external researchers to analyze data and provide valuable feedback on data quality and additional information needs
An effective court optimizes resources to help litigants navigate and resolve legal issues and allows judges to focus on complex cases that require their expertise. To promote effectiveness, courts should:
- Make legal information available to court users in a comprehensible format
- Streamline policies, processes, and technologies to reduce confusion and delays for court users
- Focus case management on the needs of individual users and their cases
- Improve the availability of outside legal and other help to support accurate and timely resolutions for court users
An equitable court identifies disparities in court users’ experiences across various social-demographic characteristics and works to address them. To promote equity, courts should:
- Ensure diversity among court personnel to reflect the communities they serve and enhance users’ experiences
- Support court users’ full participation in the legal process by prioritizing accessibility and universal design principles
- Render fair decisions by enabling users to fully participate in their cases and providing judges with the necessary information to make informed rulings
- Improve the availability of outside legal and other help to meet the diverse needs of court users
Applying the Framework
The court modernization framework can be applied to assess specific court reforms or to guide broader goals and strategies. To effectively implement the framework, courts should:
- Invest resources to measure and share progress and outcomes
- Collect baseline court data to assess current performance and inform reform efforts
- Prioritize court user voices to ensure reforms meet their needs
- Bring together a diverse stakeholder group to provide insights and perspectives
- Continually gather feedback and make adjustments based on user experiences
The current state of the civil court system in the United States calls for urgent reform and modernization. By adopting the principles of openness, effectiveness, and equity, courts can transform their values, treatment of court users, and goals to create a more accessible, effective, and equitable legal system. The court modernization framework provides a roadmap for courts to navigate these changes, improve efficiency, and deliver equal justice for all.