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State Panel Acts to Cut Trial Courts' Case Backlog

May 31, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Judicial Council, moving to reduce congestion in the trial courts, adopted new standards Saturday aimed at systematically reducing delay in civil and criminal cases in California.

The 21-member council, made up of judges, lawyers and legislators who function as the policy- and rule-making arm of the state judicial system, voted without dissent to enact the new guidelines as required under the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act, passed by the Legislature last year.

Under standards to go into effect this July, Superior courts will be expected to ensure that most civil cases are tried or otherwise resolved within four years after they have been filed and that criminal felony cases are concluded within one year.

To reduce backlogs, judges will be asked to dispose of 25% more civil cases than are filed over a one-year period.

Stricter guidelines, based on American Bar Assn. standards that now are in effect in 22 other states, will go into effect in July, 1991.

Exceptions Provided

Under those guidelines, 90% of all civil cases should be completed within one year and the remainder within two years; 90% of all criminal felony cases should be concluded within 120 days and the rest within a year.

The new standards provide exceptions for unusually complex cases or for probate, guardianship, conservatorship, family law and juvenile proceedings.

The council's guidelines provide no sanctions for failure to meet the standards and leave it to individual courts as to how to meet them. But they are expected to serve as an important first step toward reducing delay and encouraging judges to take the lead in eliminating congestion.

"To enable the just and efficient resolution of cases, the court, not the lawyers or litigants, should control the pace of litigation," the council's guidelines state. "A strong judicial commitment is essential to reducing delay and, once achieved, maintaining a current docket."

The act, sponsored by state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, was adopted in the wake of concern over continued congestion in the trial court system. A record 825,600 civil and criminal cases were filed in the Superior courts in 1984-85--a 25% increase in the last decade--while only 635,700 cases were being completed.

Problem Acute in Cities

While some progress has been made in recent years, the problem has remained particularly acute in cities such as Los Angeles, where some civil cases have taken five years to reach trial and where the median waiting time in civil jury cases increased from 21 months in 1976 to 36 months in 1985.

Delay in civil cases has been attributed in part to an increase in criminal proceedings, which must be given precedent to protect the speedy-trial rights of defendants. More than 82,000 criminal cases were filed in Superior courts in 1984-85, a 50% increase over a decade.

Under the new legislation, the council was required to adopt new standards for faster disposition of civil and criminal cases, gather more data on the extent of current delay and, next year, launch a three-year pilot program in the court system to develop new ways to curtail congestion.

In another action Saturday, the council, which now is led by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas with his appointees in the majority, reversed a policy that it had followed under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird opposing any increases in civil filing fees or in penalty assessments added onto fines in traffic or criminal cases. The Legislature has used such devices increasingly in recent years as a means to fund court facilities and related programs. The new council voted to drop its flat opposition to fee and assessment increases when such proceeds are to be used for courtroom construction.

Attorney Kenneth W. Larson of San Pablo, long a dissenter to the action, argued that fee increases were effectively limiting the public's ability to go to court. "Little by little, we are denying access to the courts--not to the rich, not to the poor (for whom fees may be waived), but to the middle-class," he said.

But other council members rejected that contention. "I don't see any denial of access to the courts," state Supreme Court Justice David N. Eagleson said. "Filings (of cases) are going up in quantum leaps."

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