It goes without saying that these past 14 months have been nothing short of unprecedented. Here at Wholesale Screening, one of the specific impacts that has affected our clients greatly has been access to public records data. With access in many jurisdictions limited, this past year brought many challenges. So, where are we now? As courts around the country reopen and the pandemic subsides here in the United States, what does the future hold? Like a long car ride with tired and impatient kids in the back seat, the big question everyone is asking is, “Are we there yet?”
Where We’ve Been
In March 2020, when the stay-at-home orders came into effect at the start of the pandemic, many of the courts closed their doors to public access. This meant that any court records research requiring in-person access to files or clerks was halted completely. Over time, some courts began to offer services via email requests to the court clerks but, understandably, the courts really weren’t prepared or staffed properly to handle these remote requests in a timely manner. Resulting delays have challenged the industry for many months and still persist in some areas today.
Where We Are
While we are all ready for things to be completely back to normal, we just aren’t there yet.
As we sit here in May 2021, progress toward reopening the courts has been great and Wholesale Screening has ramped up to all-time high level of research volume. Where at the height of the pandemic there were over 300 jurisdictions closed or delayed, now there are only a handful. Most courts have opened back up with varying degrees of access. We’re also noticing that when courts must close due to a COVID incident, they are reopening more quickly than earlier in the pandemic. They now have processes and protocols which allow them to respond to incidents and open back up much faster.
On another positive note, we are seeing some new courts that are moving to provide online access to court records data. New Jersey was quick to make this happen early in the pandemic and others are following suit. Prior to the pandemic, there really were not many new jurisdictions that were considering allowing remote access to their court data, but the necessity of limiting public interaction in the courthouses since the pandemic started has caused the conversations around digital access to grow exponentially.
Despite the good news, we still have courts that remain closed and have been for over 6 months. Others have opened with limited access. For example, in some jurisdictions, researchers must set appointment times with limitations on how long the appointment can last to access the public records research terminal or meet with a clerk. This creates another potential source of delay.
Where We’re Going
So, what’s next? When will we finally get there? In some ways, we believe access to public records research will be changed forever because of the pandemic. Some courts may never go back to how it was before because of changes to their processes. Others will likely bounce back to normal. Many already have. Without a crystal ball, the future is uncertain, but we will continue to work hard to optimize our processes to work with the courts and to help where we can to promote the adoption of digital access to court records across the court system.
Until then, keep your seatbelts buckled.