The litigation explosion: how courts can relieve overloaded dockets

A Texas man hauls his local school board into court over the lowering of his daughter's grade for unexcused tardiness. A Georgia plaintiff files suit to have Ohio declared illegal, claiming that Congress never properly made it a state.

A convicted murderer prefers charges against prison authorities for refusing him access to a stereo cassette player so he can listen to religious tapes.

Are these examples of frivolous litigation or legitimate (if not a bit bizarre) challenges to injustices? This is a tough question, with which the legal system is grappling in several ways.

Obviously, it would be advantageous to devise an efficient way to cull out the preposterous and the frivolous claims and relieve already overloaded court dockets.

One practical measure to discourage borderline suits might be to require initial proof that there is a legitimate legal issue. Another might be to charge plaintiffs a ''good faith'' filing cost.

A federal district judge in Illinois - concerned about the rising tide of prisoner complaints coming to the courts - has moved in the latter direction. Judge Harold A. Baker now requires inmates who believe their civil rights have been violated to post $4 to $5 in ''up-front money'' before filing their suits in court. And, according to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., more than 90 other jurisdictions follow a similar practice.

Judge Baker and other jurists will waive these costs for indigent prisoners. Civil rights lawyers stress, however, that some suits that seem frivolous on the surface may raise important constitutional issues. They argue that a superficial preliminary test of legitimacy may be unfair and that a token filing fee may tend to discourage bona fide complaints.

However one feels about that argument, it is clear that ever-growing court dockets are playing willy-nilly with the US legal system. Cases - most of them not frivolous - are backed up, in some places for three or four years. Meanwhile , the meter continues to run on lawyers' fees and court costs. The hale and hearty, and those who are well heeled, are more apt to stick in there. Others, despite the potential worth of their claims, are often forced to drop out.

The statistics border on the awesome. A recent US Justice Department report indicates that last year in state courts alone some 13 million civil cases and 11 million criminal cases were filed. This is a 20 percent jump over 1978 filings. Adding to this total are more than 57 million traffic cases. Other studies show that the number of civil lawsuits in US district courts - including those brought by prison inmates - has doubled since 1975.

Legal observers say this litigation explosion is due to both the public perception that only the courts can adequately address their grievances - and the overzealousness of lawyers eager to argue claims before a judge and jury. At the same time, public-interest groups are loudly denouncing the high costs of going to court - suggesting as alternatives mediation and arbitration, and self-representation or paralegal counseling in civil matters.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association has decided to attack the problem from another angle - that of reducing court costs and trial delay by streamlining the process. Through a series of model programs, it is substituting teleconferences for in-court appearances in arguing routine pretrial motions, telescoping the discovery-of-evidence process, and limiting lengths of legal briefs.

The idea is to cut down the demands on lawyers' time and the detail involved. One hopes the savings are then passed along to clients. Initial experiments in California and Kentucky, among other places, seem to bear out the theory that this kind of cost-cutting is do-able.

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