Perhaps this is unique to California, but I just received another announcement from our attorney service of a courthouse closure. In addition, the notice mentioned yet another court that, although not closing altogether, was being reduced by several newly darkened courtrooms.
As a lawyer who makes his living doing things court-related, I’m both saddened and alarmed to learn that entire courthouses are closing. It’s not that I’m sad or afraid because there are fewer lawsuits being filed (that appears to remain on the rise), but rather that there’s a rapidly shrinking number of venues available to resolve those disputes. It will take longer for cases to get to trial, resulting in fewer trials and less access to justice. It will also make it harder for newer generations of lawyers to get trial experience. (This is obviously a secondary concern, but it is a legitimate concern for many of us.) It’s . . . a . . . disappointing to live in such a perpetually mismanaged state. But I’ve been thinking about ways the judiciary and our profession can cope with this situation and I’ve come up with a couple of ideas.
First, I recently co-authored an article for the ACC Docket which talked about the notion of a “compressed” trial, in which the judge forced the parties to present a case that would normally consume 3 weeks in just 4 days. Much of the article discussed tips and suggestions how to better prepare for this kind of compressed trial format, but I also argued that lawyers and their clients should not just accept such a drastically condensed trial, but actually embrace the concept. After all, if a trial that would normally consume 3 weeks could be reasonably condensed down to 4 days,* that would free up 2 weeks in which two more highly compressed trials could be completed. Imagine completing 3 trials in the time if used to take to do just one.
There was a program introduced in some parts of California for the 1 day jury trial. I don’t know if that was successful or is still being practiced. But that’s not what I’m advocating. If the lawyers can shape a case to be tried in a day or less they will almost always do so on their own. But it takes a pretty heavy-handed judge to force the lawyers and parties to condense a 3 week presentation to something like 4 days. Perhaps more judges should do this. Just a thought.
Another idea involves ADR. If budget cuts are effectively privatizing access to justice in some places, it ought to at least be done right. A major concern centers around the cost of ADR, and I’m not talking about the hourly fees of neutrals. In my experience, the rates of most neutrals are commensurate, or even slightly less, than those of the attorneys appearing before them. But there are costs associated with working with an “institutional” ADR provider that tend to give our clients pause, and with good reason. If law firms are going to be squeezed and forced to do more for less, shouldn’t ADR providers do the same? What about more “solo” ADR providers?
My personal beef with ADR, at least arbitrations, is the inconsistent application of the rules of evidence. Appellate courts keep judges honest, but some arbitrators can and do dispense with evidence rules rather freely, which makes the hearing something of a chaotic free-for-all.
There’s no real silver lining to the issue of darkened courtrooms and closed courthouses. Wherever it occurs, there is reduced access to justice. Perhaps, though, we can collectively brainstorm and come up with constructive ways to manage the problem.
*Whether it was in fact “reasonable” for the judge to compress the trial this aggressively was a subject of some debate, particularly by counsel for the losing side which, fortunately, was not me.