A computer virus has thrown Philadelphia’s court system into chaos

By | June 12, 2019

Since May 21st, a virus has shut down Philadelphia’s online court system, bringing network access to a standstill. The problems started unexpectedly: suddenly, no one could seem to access the system to file documents. “It wasn’t working,” says Rachel Gallegos, a senior staff attorney with the civil legal aid organization Community Legal Services. “I thought it was my computer.”

As Baltimore deals with a devastating malware attack, the Philadelphia court shutdown is raising similar questions about how cities can respond when crucial services are suddenly lost. The outage has now stretched on for weeks, forcing attorneys to use paperwork filed in person and raising difficult questions about who is slipping through the cracks of the broken system.

The courts have attributed the problem to malware discovered on “a limited number” of computers, which caused them to shut down the system as a precaution. But there’s little other information available: officials said that saying any more “could jeopardize the remediation process,” but that they’ve contracted a cyber security firm to look into the problem. The courts, meanwhile, remain open in person.

The shutdown has effectively blocked anyone from filing documents in the court system electronically, sending people to physical courts, pushing lawyers to make paper filings, and reducing the hours that documents can be accepted. The virus has produced even wider problems, too, blocking people from signing up for jury duty, shutting down the court website, and for a time, even taking down the court email system. The problem has already led to reports of longer lines, boxes of files being brought in, and even jury duty excusals being granted over Twitter.

The damage is particularly severe in housing law. When a mortgaging bank tries to repossess a house (known as foreclosure), a defendant may file for a postponement before it’s sold, asking to delay the process while they gather information to fight the decision. But amid the outage, those postponement filings are in danger of being lost in the chaos — meaning that Philadelphia’s cybersecurity problems could cause someone to lose their home unnecessarily.

Last week, Gallegos, with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, asked a judge to halt foreclosures for a month, arguing that “basic due process protections” were being curtailed by the lack of electronic access. But the judge decided against granting the delay, and foreclosures have been moving ahead.

Gallegos says she’s confident the clients she works with have been handled properly, but there are concerns about everyone else. While people can still continue to file in person, Gallegos says there are a number of ways the disruption could cause someone to lose their home — the order postponing the foreclosure could get lost on the way to the sheriff’s office, or a person trying to represent themselves might decide the entire court system is down after seeing the electronic shutdown.

Gallegos says, at one point, she checked in on a court order to postpone a foreclosure, only to discover it hadn’t yet made its way to the sheriff, a hiccup she says might be tied to the internal issues. She caught the error in time, but wonders whether everyone else would. “Can they navigate a system that’s already under a lot of stress?” Gallegos says. “It’s just chaotic.”

There’s no publicly available information on when the problems might be resolved. “There is no definitive timetable for when these services will be fully operational,” the courts system said in a statement. “However, we will continue to provide updates as they become available.” The court has stayed active on Twitter, trying to reassure people and fielding complaints, including actively rescheduling jury duty.

It’s time-consuming without the online system, but Gallegos has been forced to manually check postponement orders to ensure no one slips through the cracks. As foreclosures continue, she’s been reviewing about “an inch-thick” stack to ensure all of the orders are being properly received and passed down the chain to officials.

She says losing a home unnecessarily is too severe a punishment to take any chances. “It’s an imperfect check that we’re performing,” she says, “but we’re doing the best we can.”