Maine Hotel Case Illustrates Civil Justice Rationing

It seems a routine case: A town planning board approves a new Hampton Hotel but a resident thinks it was done improperly and failed to properly address questions like how tall the buildings would be. But, as with many such “civil referee” cases around the country, this one illustrates the rising problem of civil justice rationing. That’s because the community, Kittery on the coast of Maine, has not heard civil lawsuits for months because the caseload has been consumed by criminal cases.
Brian Early, writing in the newspaper site, quotes Kittery Town Attorney Duncan McEachern saying that York County is “about a judge-and-a-half short, so the priority is processing criminal cases and this is civil.” The report adds that “… a clerk at the York County Superior Court in Alfred said Friday the court has not heard civil cases since June [2015], and the next opening to hear civil cases will be during the first week in March. What cases will be heard will not be decided until next month. If the case is not heard in March, it is not clear when it will be.”
Read about the rationing here.

Florida Bar President Says Legal Representation Is A ‘Crisis’

The recent economic downturn and increased housing evictions are a couple of the reasons that Florida Bar President Ray Abadin says the inability of the majority of Floridians to afford legal representation is at “crisis proportions.” In a Tampa Tribune story, she says that “… not having professional legal representation can have dramatic adverse consequences in any situation. It can be devastating to one person; it can have life implications for families. Not having a lawyer can be a very serious thing.”
The Tribune notes that Abadin sits on the Florida Commission for Access to Civil Justice, “… which recently submitted its first report to the state Supreme Court offering suggestions for addressing the need, including a possible way to fund legal services.” Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr., the immediate past president of the state Bar Foundation, explains in the Trib’s report that “… the foundation’s main source of funds to pay for legal aid, interest on attorney trust accounts, sank from $22 million to $5 million. At the same time, thousands of Floridians faced foreclosure proceedings, threatened with losing their houses and needing legal representation.

Florida Is Facing Its Civil Justice Challenges

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga (Photo:

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga (Photo:

When Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga organized a statewide commission to study civil justice access issues, it was suspected that one benefit might be to at least create conversation around the issue. While other progress might be slow in coming, you can at least point to ongoing discussion as a success. A case in point is a recent Gainesville Sun newspaper editorial getting picked up around the state.
The piece notes that when “… someone faces a legal problem with a landlord, a family law issue or other civil disputes, finding and affording the right lawyer can be a challenge. The World Justice Project ranked the United States 65th out of 99 countries in accessibility and affordability of civil justice… the problem is particularly bad in Florida. An estimated 60 percent of residents can’t afford an attorney to address their legal need, but don’t qualify for legal aid, according to officials with The Florida Bar.”
The editorial addresses the idea of matching young lawyers with clients via technology and reports on a bar association push-back on using a dues increase to fund improvements. Clearly, it continues the civil justice conversation that other states should be having. Read more here.

Traffic ‘Debtors Prison’ Decried As California Courts Struggle

The San Diego Reader has a story up about how Orange County created a revenue-generating operation from traffic fines, collecting “bail” up front to both discourage challenges and assure court attendance. As with other areas around the nation, the traffic court has become a focal point in both terms of race and ability to pay.
Ken Harrison’s story in the Reader quotes Bill Niles, president of the California Traffic School Association, saying, “This was unconstitutional. Nobody should have to pay the fine before seeing a judge. People have had their cars taken away and their driver’s licenses suspended just because they couldn’t pay the fines. It was like debtors’ prison.”
Read the story here.

California Eyes Emergency Rules On ‘Pay-To-Play’ Traffic Courts

The Golden State legislature is among governments statewide considering rapid reforms to traffic court policies in the wake of unrest in places like Furguson, Mo., that spotlighted how some policies send minority residents into a spiral of debt and fees that can lead to jail – usually without any real legal representation along the way.
California lawmakers this week are considering “emergency rules” that, the L.A. Times explains, “… would make it easier for drivers to contest traffic tickets — but will do nothing to help those already saddled with fines and fees they cannot afford to pay, according to lawyers and court officials. The state has added on charges that make the cost of a routine traffic ticket nearly $500, an amount that rapidly inflates when deadlines are missed. Although state courts charge people many fees — raised during the budget crisis — to use the legal system, the outcry has been loudest in the traffic arena.”
The LAT noted that “… lawyers representing the poor have complained that judges in some counties have been requiring drivers to pay the fines as a condition of contesting them, a practice that California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called “pay to play” and vowed to stop.”
Nearly 5 million California drivers have had their licenses suspended because of an inability to pay fines, officials say.
Read the L.A. Times story here.

UPDATE: House Committee Endorses Asbestos Bankruptcy ‘Transparency’ Proposal

By a 19-9 vote along party lines Thursday (May 14), the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has decided to send an asbestos bankruptcy transparency proposal to the full House. The legislation, called “FACT,” for Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency, would require court-approved bankruptcy trust funds to disclose name, claim and payout information of people seeking payouts from the funds.
Dozens of the trust funds have been created to address liability of bankrupt firms facing asbestos exposure liability. Republicans argue that transparency is needed to prevent “double dipping” from people who get paid by both trusts and civil lawsuits; Democrats counter that trusts are a different system and defendants could get the payout information via pre-lawsuit discovery efforts. Both sides claim to have interests of veterans at heart.
Watch the sometimes testy debate at the House website archives (note it might take some time to convert the webcast to archive):

Courts Monitor’s Top 5 Civil Justice Issues For 2015

The staff and publisher offer a rundown of five top civil justice issues to watch. See it at The Huffington Post.

‘Jerk Bill’ Takes Aim At Attorney Bad Behavior

A business-backed bill that takes aim at certain attorney behavior, typically tactics that show disrespect or are designed to delay the courts, has been signed into law by Gov. Brown, the Sacramento Business Journal is reporting. Backers of the bill argued that, along with giving judges a tool to regulate attorneys, the new law will conserve court resources.
The BizJ quotes the president of the Civil Justice Association of California, or CJAC, saying that “…prior to this bill, courts had tools to sanction lawyers who brought frivolous lawsuits but not sanctions if they behaved badly,” said . “Now, if the filing is legit, but the lawyer is behaving like a jerk, the court can smack them with the other side’s legal fees.”
Read the report here:

WaPo: Obama Admin. Was Warned Of Border-Children Crisis

Top officials at the White House and the State Department had been warned repeatedly of the potential for a further explosion in the number of migrant children since the crisis began escalating two years ago, according to former federal officials and others familiar with internal discussions, The Washington Post is reporting.
The newspaper also says that the White House was directly involved in efforts in early 2012 to care for the children when it helped negotiate a temporary shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, which would seem to contradict administration claims that nobody could see the crisis brewing – at least not on the scale we see today. Meanwhile, estimates of Central American children arriving in the U.S. without accompanying parents or guardians is being revised from around 60,000 to more like 90,000 and up.
The border crisis is a civil justice crisis. The immigration process is a civil proceeding, as opposed to a criminal case, so children are not guaranteed representation by an attorney or a speedy process, as would be the case with criminal charges. Civil rights groups are suing the government in hopes of obtaining mandatory legal representation for the children.

Clients Need a ‘Bill of Rights’ argues CCM Publisher in HuffPo

California Courts Monitor publisher, Sara Warner, makes an argument for a “Client Bill of Rights” to protect clients in civil litigation today in the Huffington Post.

Sara Cocoran Warner, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

Sara Cocoran Warner, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

In her post, she states:

“We hear about personal injury cases being “bundled” with other cases to increase settlements, often without client knowledge. We hear that some attorneys distribute settlement money based on which client arrangements benefit them most. We hear about lawyers creating companies, like document courier services, that they use to drive up the “expenses” they can deduct from client payments…Hopefully, if true, these are rare events. A solid bill of rights might help keep them that way.”

Read the HuffPo piece here and join in the conversation.