Friday, June 18, 2021

Why I Hate "Pending Case" Statistics?


One of my more strongly held observations from working with court data is the statistical perceptions of case backlogs, or “pending cases” as they are generally used are simply wrong.  I think that this is because they often do not really describe the court’s caseload situation.  I explain...



First, the term “pending cases” is not really accurate.  I think instead the current “pending” number should be only one of four designations of case backlog counts.  Designations that I think would be more accurately are:

Active cases – those cases filed that are being actively pursued following case plans or are within the court's case management guidelines.

Pending – those cases not being actively pursued but still within a designated time limit.  For example, a case not withdrawn but there is no activity for one year.

Reopened – cases that are reopened by the court for post-adjudication action such as child support payment enforcement.  These cases have their own adjudication process and/or resources and therefore should be counted separately.

Inactive (but synonyms such as idle, inert, torpid work for me too)– those cases that unfortunately many courts do not wish to dismiss but have not had any actions with the court for one year or more.  I would personally like to see these cases dismissed in these courts with or without prejudice as is appropriate after a fixed amount of time.  These are cases that need to be reviewed by court staff by contacting the parties to ask. “What is the problem”?

Perception: Large pending caseload statistics are often so large that they create the perception that the court is inept, uncaring of the litigants and legal processes, and/or cannot administer justice in a timely manner.  Business and the public view these numbers and can successfully argue that the courts are inept and cannot meet their needs.

Large pending caseloads also, in my opinion, sometimes result as a barrier to reform.  If cases take three, five, ten, or more years.  And all the cases seem to take that amount of time (the big pending number), why bother?

In addition to these categories, I have added three things to case management systems to help manage the case backlog. They are:

Case Weight:  This relates to the anticipated amount of work resources including that a case will consume.  We use a table based upon the case type and charge/amount in dispute to set this weight at filing.  Then we allow the weight (0-9) to be adjusted manually as the judge has more information.  This in turn provides case county by complexity by the court, location, and judge which in turn can be used to adjust assignments.

Case Phase:  Phase such as initiation, discovery, pre-trial, trial, post-judgment give us additional information about counts that can be used again for reassignment and reviews.

Case Status: This helps to define case activity more finely within the large categories listed above.

Ultimately case backlog statistics should be used first to project the number of persons and the amount of time that will be needed to clear the caseload.  This is why I believe case management dashboard systems should be "forward-looking".  These projections can also be assisted by understanding the amount and complexity of the case document “bundle”/folder. 

More on this next week.


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  1. Linn Ann HammergrenJune 19, 2021 at 11:29 AM

    Jim, great points (but I would also add backlogged cases as a category where there are formal/legal limits on duration). However, much the same point could be made about all the usual statistics -- cases in, cases out and the scores on clearance rates and the like derived from them. I (and I suspect you) have worked in countries with either very poor CMS or only manual collection of data, in which case, cases in, cases out, pending (if you are lucky) is about it. All three (and other categories where used, for example disaggregation into major materials -- criminal, civil and so on) need further refinement, but beyond a certain point w/o a good CCMS, this is not going to happen. My particular kvetch is what gets counted as a case (business or land registrations, injunctions, requests for embargo of assets?) These should all be tallied but they are not cases, and judiciaries that count them as such are seriously inflating their workloads (often the purpose of doing so). Obviously as the other articles in this series demonstrate, generating statistics for publication (or analysis by interested outsiders) is not the major purpose of a CCMS, but if you have one, what is published (or used in a management dashboard) should be considerably more detailed.

  2. Great comments Linn. Thank you for adding your insight and experience to the discussion. - Jim