Eviction case data often inaccessible, inconsistent


Inconsistencies in access to eviction records from state courts and a lack of standardization of that data frustrate researchers at Legal Services Corp. and elsewhere when trying to analyze national eviction trends. However, some jurisdictions are working hard to ensure these records are available.

An interim LSC report released last week outlines how the lack of access to information about eviction cases in some states and inconsistencies and inaccuracies in other researchers working on a large-scale study of the eviction situation in the United States have created difficulties

“It reflects what we found in the large-scale eviction study, which varies depending on where you live,” said Lynn Jennings, LSC vice president of grants management.

The Congressional-commissioned study, The Effect of State & Local Laws on Evictions, focuses on the variability of state and local eviction laws to help legal aid providers make more informed decisions about resource allocation and reach, the report said last week.

But LSC relies on state and local court data to conduct this study, and that data can be very inconsistent from state to state or even district to district, it said. In some places it is not available at all.

“When you can get it and it’s free, the easiest way to collect it is,” Jennings said. “It’s really labor intensive to clean up the data, review the data, and validate the data.”

Access inconsistencies

One of the biggest challenges facing researchers working on the LSC’s eviction study is how to get easy access to eviction incident data in some states, the report said. Only 25 states and territories offer a consolidated, free, public website for searching civil case files from courts hearing eviction cases.

Civil court data is often unavailable or expensive

According to Legal Services Corporation, only 25 states and territories maintain a free, public website that serves civil matters from eviction and other state-level courts. Eleven states charge fees for these court records.

  • Free access
  • Paid access
  • No data at website / county level

Source: Legal services company
(As of September 2021)

These websites expedite research and analysis by providing eviction records in a standard format with consistent terminology in all jurisdictions, the report said. This makes it easier for researchers at LSC and elsewhere to compare data from different counties and place local evacuation patterns in the context of larger trends.

“This is very important for policy makers right now as they see how much of the emergency aid money for rent is going to the various locations, across the states and to local organizations,” Jennings said. “Does that make a difference?”

But 21 states and territories do not maintain a website with these records, according to the LSC. Some of this data is available at the county level, but collecting it can be time consuming and the data collected at the county level varies more widely.

Meanwhile, according to the data note, eleven states are charging fees for their eviction court files. Some of these states offer data access through a paid subscription, but others, like Colorado, charge a fee on a case-by-case basis, a policy Jennings calls “paid” for researchers.

Some Colorado eviction dates are available for free, a state justice spokesman told Law360. However, most case files cost 25 cents per page when ordered electronically and 75 cents per page for hard copy, per the Colorado Courts Fee Regulations. The courts research and drafting fee is $ 30 per hour.

“Retrieving and, if necessary, redacting court files and then sending them to a petitioner or otherwise making them available for public inspection requires time and other resources that are less than usual in Colorado these days due to the pandemic,” a spokesman said.

Inconsistencies in data

The consistency and quality of the data itself is also a stumbling block for the researchers.

While the initial filings of cases are usually consistent, important information that is later recorded in an eviction case, such as the details of hearings, settlements, and judgments, is often arbitrarily entered into electronic records that are passed from court to court and even by case officers to clerk may vary.

“LSC analysts have spent hours investigating how often information is present or absent and often have to give up analyzing a particular topic or site because the data is too inconsistent,” the report said.

Other researchers investigating eviction trends have encountered similar problems.

In a 2020 paper, researchers at Princeton University Eviction Laboratory found that 22% of eviction records do not clearly state how a case was resolved or misrepresent tenant evictions. South Carolina has been the least reliable: almost half of the state’s eviction records contain inaccuracies, the newspaper said.

“A high level of opacity increases the uncertainty in research efforts aimed at estimating clearance rates,” the researchers wrote. “For tenants, the impact is more complex. Tenants with opaque results who actually won their procedures are potentially harmed because their record doesn’t clearly communicate their victory.”

A South Carolina Justice Department spokesman said in a statement that while recognizing the importance of accurate evictions data, “we question the validity of this study which uses decades of eviction dates from only 12 states, each of which appears to be of different types reported by information. “

Different terms used to record eviction cases can also complicate the analysis of these cases. Pinellas County, Florida, for example, used the term “delinquent tenant county” most frequently to label evictions between 2016 and 2019, the data note read. At the beginning of 2020, however, this term was replaced by “Eviction property only (not monetary)”. Later that year, the prevailing label for such cases was changed back to “Eviction Only (non-monetary).”

An eviction may also be recorded as “Illegal Detainee”, “Expropriation” and “Rule to vacate” on some records, and some jurisdictions only use codes, according to the LSC.

“Cleaning up” this data can be very time and labor intensive, Jennings said.

It may also require the help of local legal experts.

The problem is not limited to eviction research, emphasized Jennings. LSC is collecting data for a larger court data project, including consumer data and domestic violence data, she said, but variations in that data and its quality have slowed analysis.

“In judicial systems where information is recorded in non-standard ways, analysts devote hours to removing numerous obstacles that could seriously skew results if not properly addressed,” the report said.

Make eviction data more accessible

The Maricopa County, Arizona courts are one of the jurisdictions working to make eviction records more consistent and available for research, LSC said.

The district courts provide monthly tables of information, including the date of the eviction action, the address of the eviction, the name of the tenant, whether the tenant was represented by an attorney, who won the case, and whether there is a restitution notice. an order for the police officer to lock a tenant out of the property, according to Scott Davis, the public information officer for the Maricopa County Justice Courts.

The data exchange project began over three years ago in partnership with the Arizona Department of Housing, which wanted to learn how to best get eviction information and help for those who needed it, Davis said.

Maricopa County’s eviction data proved “surprisingly robust,” Davis said. “Little did I know it was so difficult for other jurisdictions to give out this type of data.”

The data is currently free, and is typically accessed by universities and city, state, and county governments and agencies, and agencies that work with governments and court systems to improve the judicial system, Davis said.

“It is valuable to make information public,” he said.

Davis acknowledged that there are still gaps in this information. Extrajudicial developments in a case, such as when a tenant simply moves out or concludes a deal with the landlord, are not recorded.

The case records also don’t include demographics such as the age, race, and gender of a litigator, which information researchers often want, but that’s irrelevant to legal proceedings, Davis said.

And the effort involved in sharing data costs staff time and resources, Davis said. He said he spends about two days every month going through the data himself before he can send it out.

This is a burden smaller counties with smaller court systems and staff may not be able to shoulder, and even in large Maricopa County, the free nature of the data could be reevaluated in the future, he said.

“What we eat for the common good now comes at a price,” said Davis.

Currently, however, data exchange projects like Maricopa County are accelerating research into evictions, improving access to justice by allowing researchers to focus on analyzing the data rather than tracking and cleaning it up, according to LSC.

According to Jennings, LSC eviction research has already produced an evacuation tracker, a database of eviction laws and two themed letters. She is planning four more briefings on topics such as the speed of the eviction process and innovations in legal representation in evictions. A final report is expected to be published in February.

“Dealing with eviction data issues is a huge undertaking; Efforts such as those underway in Maricopa County, however, provide an example of how improving data accessibility enables researchers to help jurisdictions understand local problems and develop solutions, ”LSC said.

“Overcoming these issues and further removing barriers can lead to tangible improvements for low-income Americans across the country,” it said.

– Editing by Brian Baresch.

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