Monday, February 9, 2009

Florida's Costly Court Crisis

Palm Beach ,Florida USA Palm Beach Post

For years, lawyers have argued that the failure to adequately finance Florida's court system is bad for justice. Now the Florida Bar is getting really serious. The new push is that failing to pay for the courts is bad for business.

"I've seen a shift" in Tallahassee, Palm Beach County Chief Judge Kathleen Kroll said in an interview. "Business now knows that they have a problem." John "Jay" G. White III, a West Palm Beach lawyer and president of the Florida Bar, said, "That's why we got business involved. We wanted some help in making the point."

For all the teeth-clenched complaints about "frivolous" personal-injury cases and criminals getting plea deals, the real strain on Florida's courts has come from routine business litigation that winds up in the civil courts.

According to a study by The Washington Economics Group, the statewide caseload is up 53 percent in the past decade, and the number of cases filed per 1,000 residents has increased from 180 to 245 during the same period.
Here's how those numbers hit the public: In barely two years, the average time to resolve a civil case has increased from one month to about 13 months.

Even non-lawyers can appreciate that the main reason is the bad economy. There are more landlord-tenant disputes, and more evictions. And, of course, there are more foreclosures. The study estimated that of the 335,000 civil cases pending in Florida courts last October, 286,000 were property/foreclosure cases.

Many of those are small-money issues compared with the multimillion-dollar legal fights that are common in South Florida. But small cases matter just as much to the parties involved. And as on Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike, traffic is traffic. A Ford Focus clogs the road as much as a Chevy Suburban.

The Washington Economic Group calculated that abnormal court delays cost Florida $17.4 billion in economic output each year. Admittedly, such a figure may be as hard to pin down as illegal narcotics sales. But no one who understands business in Florida misses the point. Florida TaxWatch has stressed the problem for years, more urgently each time. Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, said: "We need to sue each other. Disputes are routine, and they need to be resolved quickly."

Circuit court backlogs also mean that probate cases drag out, frustrating people grieving the death of a loved one. Delays in family court cause divorces and child custody cases to linger. It takes a terrible toll, and most of it is needless.

The courts make up less than 1 percent of the state budget. But Florida pays for the courts through a mishmash system. The Bar and the judges want the Legislature to provide a more reliable, constant source of money and to make sure that fees in place to pay for the courts go there directly, not through another office. Another recommendation is for a review of filing fees. One quick way to get more money for the courts is to charge more to use them, but that can restrict access for people who have legitimate cases but less money.

Finally, the courts are a branch of government, not an agency. Treating them badly isn't just wrong. It's costly.

1 comment:

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