Court Data Access Drives Legislative Change: A Story From California

on Topics: Case Research | Future Law | Perspectives

Court Data Access Drives Legislative Change: A Story From California

Improving access to justice requires data, and in the context of the vast majority of consumer litigation, it requires better access to state court data. 

To showcase how state court data can make a real impact on improving access to justice, UniCourt is featuring a three-part series of guest posts from Claire Johnson Raba

Claire is a Clinical Teaching Fellow at the University of California, Irvine School of Law Consumer Law Clinic, where she teaches law students in direct services and policy advocacy, who are working to advance the rights of low-income consumers and eradicate unconstitutional legal fines and obligations. Claire was previously a senior staff attorney and the project lead for the consumer law unit at Bay Area Legal Aid and an adjunct professor of Consumer Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. 

Claire has a wealth of expertise in consumer rights, government-imposed debt, debt collection, consumer bankruptcy, credit reporting, access to civil justice, and the use of legal technology by self-represented litigants. Her empirical legal research is focused on substantively improving the experiences of self-represented litigants in state court. She has a B.A. in political science from California State University, East Bay, a Juris Doctor with a public interest concentration from UC Hastings, and was an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by Arnold & Porter LLP.

We’re incredibly thankful for the great work Claire is doing to improve access to justice for self-represented litigants in state courts, and hope you enjoy reading her first guest post in this series. 

Court Data Access Drives Legislative Change: A Story From California

California legislators passed a myriad of bills in the last legislative session to increase consumer protection and economic security for Californians. Bills signed by the Governor included Assembly Bill 424, which dramatically increases protections for student loan borrowers facing debt collection abuses in state court. A crucial component in the toolkit of advocates was a report analyzing the scope and impact of the problem, Co-opting California Courts: How Private Creditors Have Turned the Judiciary into a Predatory Student Debt Collection Machine

In an analysis of twelve years of court record data for private student loan debt collection cases filed in California, research from the University of California, Irvine School of Law provided legislators with a window into what has been happening behind the scenes in California’s 58 county courts. In a county-by-county breakdown, this report showed the default rates and rate of attorney representation for student loan borrowers, informing lawmakers about the importance of this issue for people living in their Assembly and Senate districts.

The report found that ninety percent of student loan borrowers sued in California do not have an attorney to represent them in court, and that most cases end in a default judgment against the borrower. The consequences of default judgments are detrimental to the financial stability of working people. A borrower with a judgment against her constantly lives in fear that her wages will be garnished or her bank account levied. A judgment in California collects interest at a rate of ten percent per year, and judgments may be renewed every ten years, which means that they can remain enforceable for decades. 

In student loan cases, borrowers end up with default judgments against them in 65 percent of cases, meaning the borrower never filed a response with the court. This type of information is only available through analysis of docket-level data for these cases filed in state court, but data is hard to access in a disaggregated system like California’s, in which each of the 58 counties maintains a separate case management system.

Civil court record data is vital to informing legislators about how legislation can protect litigants in the court system. As the U.S. Congress considers the “Free PACER Act” again this session to modernize, streamline, and make freely available to the public federal court record data, there is a disconnect in how little we know about what happens in state courts. The federal bill stands in contrast with an overwhelming lack of access in the courts where most cases are filed and decided. There were only 376,762 cases filed in all U.S. District Courts in 2019, while there were over 800,000 cases filed in California in 2019, with more than 400,000 cases of those filed in limited civil jurisdiction matters alone. California limited civil cases are those worth less than $25,000 and are mostly made up of debt collection cases and eviction matters. Across the country, the vast majority of cases are brought in state courts, not in federal forums, and most of those cases are heard in “lawyerless courts,” where one or both parties are unrepresented by an attorney.

Legislators had insight into the issues that drove support for AB 424 because the data analysis of court records supported anecdotal stories of legal aid advocates and borrowers in their legislative districts. For this student loan record data, California civil court docket-level records were collected by UniCourt and made available to academic researchers. There are other California bills in the 2021 session that also sought to extend protection to predominantly unrepresented litigants in state court but did not make it through the legislature and to the Governor’s desk. Would access to data have made a difference in these bills?

Senate Bill 373 sought to protect survivors of domestic violence from the effects of economic abuse and coerced debt. This bill would have prohibited debt collectors from collecting or attempting to collect a debt if the borrower showed that the debt was a result of coerced debt and provided domestic violence survivors with an affirmative defense to debt collection lawsuits in state court. A better understanding of the landscape of debt collection lawsuits in California could help inform legislators of the scope of this problem, by showing how frequently people are sued in state court for defaulted debt and connecting this data with findings on the predominance of economic abuse and coerced debt in abusive relationships. Mining the data on the more than 200,000 people sued each year in California courts to collect small-dollar debts could help legislators better understand how many people might be helped through the passage of a bill like SB 373.

A barrier for many low- and moderate-income litigants in civil court cases is the cost of paying for court filing fees, which range from $225 to $435 to merely respond to a lawsuit. California Senate Bill 355, a bill to update the civil fee waiver eligibility guidelines to allow more people to file court documents for free, did not pass out of the California Assembly in 2021, in part due to concerns about the potential cost to the courts of extending fee waiver eligibility. Information based on court records to show legislators how often fee waiver requests are denied would help legislators to understand the magnitude of the issue – it would demonstrate how many people swore under penalty of perjury that they could not afford to pay their court fees and also meet their household’s basic needs.

An analysis of docket-level data would show how and where court fee waivers are denied, how often people file for a hearing after denial, and where judges then deny these requests for a fee waiver, even after the litigant appears for a hearing to show the court proof of their expenses and inability to pay. Geographic data, such as that used to show the impact of student loan debt cases across all California counties, is a valuable tool for legislative advocates to demonstrate the impact of legislative change. For a bill like SB 355, which sought to link fee waiver eligibility to a percentage of the average median income for the highest-income counties in the state, data visualization such as a map of fee waiver denials overlaid with average cost of housing would be a powerful visual representation of the problem the bill sought to address. 

Moreover, analysis of what happens after a fee waiver is denied may help to address concerns about cost by looking at how many cases fail to proceed once a fee waiver application is denied. The consequence of failing to pay filing fees is a default judgment entered against a defendant and a dismissal of the case for a plaintiff. It would be a valuable data point to know how many people lose access to the court system each year as a consequence of being denied a fee waiver. 

In California, SB 355 and SB 373 were both converted to two-year bills and will be considered by the state legislature again. If the success by advocates on the student loan bill is any indication, having a better understanding of the big data of court cases in California courts may be an important resource to help supporters of bills like these make their case in Sacramento. 

California is only one example of how court record data can help legislators to understand the magnitude and scope of how low-income people experience the court system and how these processes can be improved and simplified. Going forward, the value of analyzing court record data to identify problems means that the success and efficacy of legislative change is measurable and the bills that work to improve access to justice and fair outcomes can be replicated in other states, backed up by research that shows what works.

Advocates for low-income litigants in the court system recognize through the experiences of their individual clients that systemic injustices and structural inequities impact the way low-income and unrepresented litigants experience the court system. The data to show the big picture of how these cases proceed, and the outcomes for the litigants, is often buried in a myriad of different case management systems. In many states, this data remains inaccessible to the public, standing as a barrier to quantitative analysis of how courts operate, but when the data is made available to the public, it becomes a valuable resource to drive legislative change.