An often heard complaint of people who are in need of access to the courts, whether they are sued or wish to sue, is that the wheels of justice spin slowly, if at all. The school of thought has, for a long time, been that a law suit filed today will not be heard by a Judge for years. In the interim, the expense, inefficiency and bureaucracy make the system frustrating and intimidating.
Times are changing. Certainly, alternatives to the courts, i.e. mediation and arbitration, are one reason for the change, but there are less obvious reasons. For the past few years the Administrative Office of Courts has reported a decrease in the court backlog. In Bergen County, with a full compliment of Superior Court judges, the waiting time from the filing of the complaint to trial has been dramatically decreased. The Courts have also implemented a system called “Best Practices”.
Best Practices, which began in September, 2000 was designed to specifically address the problems and issues that litigants and attorneys alike have complained about to provide a uniform way for cases to wind their way through the system. While a complete analysis of “Best Practices” is beyond the scope of this article, at its core???? Best Practices is a system where each filed case is given a “track assignment”. The track assignment provides a certain amount of days for discovery to be completed. At the time the complaint is filed a pre-trial judge is assigned who follows the matter on all issues. The judge monitors each case, handles all motions and case manages the matter until it is ready for trial. The goal of the system is to provide certainty to litigants (and to counsel) that discovery will be done by a date certain. Once discovery is deemed complete, the Court will usually assign the matter to non-binding mandatory arbitration. Following that, a trial date is assigned and, at least in Bergen, Passaic and Essex Counties, when that case is assigned, the case will be sent for trial. Too often, in the past, a case would be assigned for trial two, three or even four times before it was given a “real” trial date.
Certainly, at times, the system continues to be frustrating and intimidating to many but not for the old reasons. The courts are striving to be more accessible, expedient and user friendly. An important note is that with the time deadlines being more strictly applied, responsiveness from clients is more critical than ever. It is clear, however, that there is a more efficient use of time which leads to an overall decrease in litigation expenses.
Darrell M. Felsenstein, is an Associate at WJ&L, who practices in the Litigation Area.