We try to keep track of trends in family law. 2020 was, for many reasons, an unusual year. But some trends are continuing when we reviewed the statistical survey published by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Recall that in 2020, Pennsylvania was pretty much closed from March 15 until the first week in June and some courts worked vastly altered schedules for many months after that.
One of the big concerns arising when Governor Wolf issued his “stay at home” order was whether this would prompt a spike in domestic violence cases. Ironically, the effect appears from the statistics to have been minimal. Since 2012 the number of Protection from Abuse cases has held steady in the 39,000 to 40,000 range (about 770 per week statewide). In 2020 that number actually dropped to 36,000. Bear in mind that almost half of these cases are either withdrawn or the petitioner fails to appear to prosecute the case when set for trial.
Custody cases also fell off in 2020. In 2011 there were approximately 50,000 new custody filings. That number declined to 45,000 and remained steady from 2014 to 2019. In 2020 only 35,000 cases were filed. While the filings have declined, case management remains a persistent and growing problem. The number of cases pending at years’ end has doubled since 2011 from 20,000 to 40,000 and the trend has been consistently upward since 2016.
Divorce was another area where there was an expectation that numbers would rise as couples found themselves spending more time together at home. For the past decade new divorce filings have bounced between 38,000 and 41,000 per year. In 2020 they dropped slightly to 35,000.
The confounding trend is in support cases. In 2011 there were 225,000 new cases filed. By 2013 that number began a steady decline to 150,000 cases. The numbers ticked back up in 2019 just slightly but then plummeted in 2020 in 109,500. The only instantly recognizable explanation is a decline in childbirth. In 1990 there were almost 17 children born to each 1,000 people in the U.S. In 2019 that number was down to 11.4. In 2011 there were 12.7 births per 1,000 population. So, the numbers don’t really synchronize. The divorce numbers are consistent 2011-2019, although we have a growing number of children born to unwed parents.
The harrowing concern arises when you step back and look at total case volume. Looking at historic averages and excluding the half of the Protection from Abuse cases that don’t go to hearing there are 250,000 family law filings per year, roughly 21,000 a month. The civil and criminal systems generate another 300,000 cases on average each year. We have 458 commissioned judges at the trial court level. That means in addition to criminal courts and civil court proceedings courts are expected to process 45 family law cases per judge each month. These data are elusive in the sense that there are many hearing officers and other judicial personnel to provide off ramps to this litigation through conferences or hearings they conduct on behalf of the elected judges. But it is still a huge volume and that volume has only been increased by the court closings and delays brought about by our battle with the coronavirus.