More federal cases went to trial in 2021 than in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic continued to slow the federal court system last year, due to inability or unwillingness to file suits, according to a report from U.S. Courts.
In the second year of the pandemic, federal courts saw fewer civil complaints filed, but a slight increase in criminal complaint cases, the report said. Federal civil filings fell by 27% in 2021, which was notable given the 30% uptrend in litigation between 2017 and 2020. Criminal cases increased 1% from 2020 to 2021. This followed a 20% decrease in criminal cases over the past decade.
Civil appeals dropped by 9% last year, while criminal appeals increased by 10%. Criminal appeals made up a quarter of all federal appeals filed in 2021, according to Courthouse News Service. Half of the appeals filed in 2021 were filed by pro se litigants (people who represent themselves, without lawyers). Of those appeals, 40% were prisoner petitions, according to Reuters.
Bankruptcy filings decreased by 30% last year after a nearly 50% decrease between 2012 and 2020. The flood of government spending during the pandemic likely played a role in staving off bankruptcies in 2021.
One of the main reasons for the drop in federal cases, including appeals, is that courts struggled to effectively seat juries. Jurors need to be in a room together and not communicating with anyone else during a trial. It’s impossible to simulate something like this electronically. Federal courts take this issue seriously, and they postponed trials as a result.
Teleconferencing helped to facilitate the hearing of certain federal cases, but many grand and petit juries were suspended due to the pandemic.