Taking a People-First Approach to Court Data

Courts generate massive amounts of data that researchers and policy makers use to analyze and assess the state of the court system. Much of this data is organized in a “courts-first” manner – by type of court and by case, which functions as the unit of measurement. This approach to data collection informs court-focused research, which deals primarily with the size of dockets and caseloads, how quickly cases are processed, and other case- and court-centric arcs.

In their paper Creating a People-First Court Data Framework, Charlotte Alexander from Georgia Institute of Technology and Lauren Sudeall from Vanderbilt Law School note that this “courts-first” approach extends beyond data management to larger decisions made by courts and researchers about “how we think about and study courts, their role, and the legal and social problems that come before them. Using the court case as the primary unit of analysis relies on a set of assumptions about how we conceive of and treat those problems.” The authors challenge these assumptions with a first-of-its-kind pilot project that measures court activity through a different lens: the people who interact with the court. This “people-first” approach to data collection and analysis focuses on the actors in the court system, both inside and outside the confines of their associated cases.

“The traditional top-down, court-focused lens…provides an important perspective on how court systems operate – but also an incomplete one,” the authors write. Under such a framework, they explain, “it can be difficult to disaggregate and track the experience of individual litigants.”

It also has a siloing effect on research. The authors point to recent work from Lynne Haney on incarcerated fathers, in which she notes that, despite significant research on the child support and criminal justice systems, there are few insights on the connections between the two. A people-first approach, the authors argue, helps researchers make stronger connections across the court system while prioritizing the actors within it that researchers and policy makers are trying to help. They note several areas of court research that could benefit from the approach, including collateral consequences, holistic legal services, problem-solving courts, and eviction.

The pilot study, which generated a people-first data set from the Fulton County, Georgia’s Magistrate, State, and Superior Courts, illustrated the potential contributions this approach could make in the future while raising legitimate concerns related to privacy. The authors offer several recommendations for restructuring data in a people-first manner that addresses these concerns without compromising the benefits of the approach. “While significant, these concerns are not insurmountable, and tools have been developed in other contexts to address similar problems,” they write.

“The process of restructuring existing court data to generate people-first data,” the authors conclude, “can be complex and raises a number of significant privacy and (mis)use concerns. Yet there is also incredible promise in data that can help those engaged with the court system from a use, management, or research perspective to understand how people, and not courts, experience such systems.”

The authors stress that the significance of this mindset shift goes beyond scholarship – “people-first data are essential to court and legal reform” – and encourage all interested parties, including those from impacted communities, to contribute ideas and discuss this new approach to court-related research and policymaking.

“The discussion of how to generate and when and how to use people-first data should not be a top-down endeavor but informed by those who have the most at stake,” they write.

Creating a People-First Court Data Framework was published in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 58.