ABA panel recommends ways to cut cost, length of trial process

The ''average American'' should have full access to United States courts. And the best way to accomplish this is for lawyers and judges to make the legal process more efficient and pass on the resultant savings to clients.

So says a new study by the American Bar Association (ABA), which was released here over the weekend at the ABA's annual meeting. This report - five years in the making - concentrates on simplifying the pretrial phase of ligation (where the majority of civil cases are concluded); shortening the time consumed by appeals; and using telephone conferencing in lieu of court appearances wherever feasible.

Leonard S. Janofski, former ABA president, chaired the association's Action Commission to Reduce Court Cost and Delay, which conducted the study. Mr. Janofski says several case studies of existing programs - in California, Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Rhode Island - provide guidelines for state and local bar associations to frame their own programs for unclogging the courts and trimming attorneys' fees.

For example, in Kentucky a combined thrust for judicial efficiency and streamlined pretrail procedures resulted in reducing the time consumed from filing to disposition of a legal matter from 16 months to five months. And a Sacramento, Calif., experiment - which set specific time limits on appellate procedures, including mandating shorter, more succinct legal briefs - succeeded in reducing total appeals time from 14 months to less than eight months.

Further, telephone conferencing - used mainly to negotiate bail, pretrial motions, and even case settlements - resulted in an estimated 50 percent reduction from the cost of an in-court hearing in a comparable matter, a saving of about $150 per motion handled by telephone. Lawyers and judges in Colorado and New Jersey who have litigated by phone claim substantial savings in time and money, which many say they are passing on to their clients.

Janofski says the average American's legal problems, under expedited court measures, should be resolved in five or six months rather than the present two or more years. The commission addressed itself specifically to civil matters and ''mid-range'' cases involving no more than $50,000. These disputes typically involve landlord-tenant controversies, domestic relations squabbles, and claims arising from auto accidents.

The ABA report comes at a time when many Americans are expressing concern over access to the courts, case logjams, and the high cost of litigating. Janofski points out that the 65 percent of US families who earn less than $25, 000 a year feel particularly cut off from the justice process.

And Prof. Daniel Meador of the University of Virginia, a legal scholar who specializes on cost-cutting in the courts, flatly states that ''unless delays and costs are brought under control, the judiciary as a dispute resolver may be threatened.'' He hastens to add that he does not oppose alternative methods for resolving disputes - such as arbitration, mediation, informal hearings, and minitrials. But he says those who choose to use the traditional trial method should not be deterred by excessive costs and delays.

Meanwhile, other lawyers and judges are urging average Americans to resolve legal problems outside of court. In just the last few years more than 180 community-based dispute-resolution programs have been established across the US - most under the auspices of local lawyers groups. They ranged from Los Angeles' neighborhood justice centers to Tulsa's ''open door'' legal assistance projects.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, in a speech scheduled for delivery here late Sunday, praised lawyers for initiating self-reforms, such as the study to reduce court costs and delays. But he also criticizes them for selling their wares through commercial-type advertising and engaging in unjustified fee practices. The chief justice stresses the importance of ethical behavior by lawyers if credibility with the public is to be maintained. This theme is picked up by the ABA cost-cutting commission. It admonishes lawyers and judges that it is their ''ethical'' responsibility to tailor their own local programs.

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