Dec 7, 2021 - News

Advancement of court tech didn't benefit everyone

A hand cursor hovering over apartment buzzers.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Forced closures during the pandemic fueled many U.S. courts to adopt new technology to function virtually, but a new report shows the advancements didn't help everyone equally.

Why it matters: Technology choices sparked equity issues for people without lawyers, particularly in eviction cases in civil court, according to new research published by the Pew Charitable Trusts this month.

  • It also made navigating the court system difficult for people with limited internet and computer access, individuals with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency.

State of play: One in six Philadelphians lack broadband access at home.

  • Meanwhile, only 10% of tenants in the city have representation in court, compared with 75% of landlords.

Of note: Philadelphia is working on launching Right to Counsel, a program to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants in eviction court. But that won't pilot until next year.

The big picture: More than 80% of all state courts were permitting or encouraging remote hearings for evictions by November 2020.

Zoom in: The Philadelphia Municipal Court — which handles the majority of eviction cases — voluntarily halted lockouts until July 2021.

  • Since August 2020, the court has moved back to primarily holding in-person hearings, but will conduct virtual ones if a need is proven.
  • The Court of Common Pleas is holding virtual hearings for appeals in landlord-tenant court cases.

What they're saying: Vik Patel, a tenant lawyer with Community Legal Services, said many low-income clients don't have access to video-conferencing software or a computer.

  • While Patel offers the technology to his clients in his office, not everyone has a lawyer.

Jacob Speidel, director of tenant rights with the SeniorLAW Center, said the shift led to some unintended consequences.

  • "People who didn't have lawyers or were not technologically sophisticated would try to go to court to file documents and were sometimes turned away," Speidel said. "My concern is people who weren’t able to navigate the system and just ended up losing their homes."

The other side: Paul Cohen, a lawyer for the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, called virtual hearings "the way of the future."

  • Cohen said he wasn't aware of any cases that were delayed because of tenants not having access to technology.
  • Both Speidel and Patel acknowledged that virtual hearings can be beneficial for people with medical issues or those who can't find child care.
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