Data clean-up purges more than 35,000 civil cases from county backlogs

By Jim Boyle | Sep 29, 2014

A two-year data review by Pennsylvania’s courts has reduced the backlog of civil cases by

19 percent and has required that all civil cases in Pennsylvania courts be addressed and disposed of in a timely manner, according to a statement from the Administrative Offices of Pennsylvania Courts.

The findings follow a comprehensive investigation at the county levels of civil cases pending in each court's backlogs. Following an 18 month period of purge activity, the most recent inventory report (July 2014) shows a decrease of 18 percent in the number of active civil cases since data clean- up was initiated in September of 2012. To date, 35,141 inactive cases have been administratively purged from the dockets.

The overall guideline is that most civil cases should be disposed of within two years of filing as recommended by the American Bar Association, unless the case is highly complex or there are extenuating circumstances.

“Too many civil cases had been on the docket for too long,” said Chief Justice Castille. “Some of that was due to certain court rules that made it difficult for inactive cases to be purged, some of it was due to lack of a case management system that could help staff understand the gravity of how many very old cases were lingering on the docket and some was due to local culture that allowed attorneys to dictate the pace of litigation, not the court and its judicial officers.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that criminal cases be heard in a timely manner, and historically, civil cases that don’t have that same requirement move through the system more slowly or in some instances not tracked.

During this project the courts, by data analysis, found that counties that did not hold attorneys accountable to a timetable or case management plan from the time the case was filed were more likely to have a higher volume of civil cases that languished on the docket for years longer than would be expected.

Some were found to be settled without notice to the courts.

“Courts must monitor and control their civil inventory in order to forecast the resources needed to try cases, identify opportunities to avoid wasted time and unnecessary expense for parties, and assure the effective and efficient use of court resources,” said Castille. “A backlog of civil cases means that landlords and tenants are waiting for resolution of cases affecting people’s homes, small businesses are waiting for outcomes that affect their bottom line and those involved in medical malpractice cases and accidents are waiting for decisions that affect their lives. That’s why it is important to keep these cases moving.”

To help courts track civil case loads, the chief justice also announced that the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has launched a new dashboard showing county-by-county civil case age data.

The dashboard data shows that of the more than 150,000 civil cases pending in Pennsylvania courts in 2013:

  • 22 percent, or more than 33,000, were mortgage foreclosure cases

  • 13 percent, or 19,400 cases, related to personal injury or property damage resulting from auto accidents

  • 11 percent, or 16,753 cases, were debt collection cases relating to credit cards

  • 10.4 percent or 15,727 cases for other debt collection disputes

  • 6.6 percent or 9,970 cases regarding challenges to administrative agencies, such as zoning boards or the Department of Transportation

  • 5.8 percent or 8,770 cases for contractual disputes other than fraud

  • 4 percent or 6,070 cases for premises liability claims, such as slip and fall injuries

  • 2.6 percent or 4,016 cases where a landowner disputes the government's seizure of land

  • 1.7 percent or 2,569 cases involving disputes between tenants and landlords

  • 1 percent, or 1,545 cases, was medical malpractice.

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