It's speedy, cut-rate, and confidential: justice in private courts

SOME call it turnstile justice. It's quick, cut-rate, confidential - and very often effective.

But others decry this circumventing of the traditional legal system as elitist - a tipping of the judicial scales toward the rich and powerful.

Regardless, it is becoming apparent that a private approach to adjudicating disputes is fast catching on in the United States. It is being spurred by frustrations with courtroom backlogs - sometimes resulting in five- to 10-year delays in getting a case to trial - as well as the spiraling costs of lawyering.

Successes are impressive. For instance:

A Pennsylvania woman who was raped on a college campus sought, and was awarded, over $100,000 in compensatory damages for her ordeal and anguish. She had sued the university for lacking adequate security to protect her. The matter was settled in three days.

It took only one day to resolve a dispute over a delivery date between a major catalog printer in Atlanta and a client in New Mexico. A Denver ``hearing officer'' settled the claim for $150,000.

And a complex partnership controversy revolving around an amusement holding on the New Jersey shore - involving millions of dollars - was settled within two weeks to the satisfaction to all parties.

Had these cases been litigated in a traditional manner in the nation's court systems, each might have taken several years to resolve, with administrative costs and lawyers' fees substantially chipping away at the profits of winning.

All three did go to court - but to a private one called Judicate.

With national administrative bases in Philadelphia and here in Los Angeles, this five-year-old dispute resolution process is expediting justice in all 50 states and also serving clients in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

It is part of a growing network of shortcuts to the public judicial system, including mediation and arbitration offered by the venerable American Arbitration Association and the private services of such national companies as EnDispute.

Judicate serves a unique clientele - litigants who are more interested in accommodation than confrontation and looking as much toward compromise as winning.

Its courtroom settings look traditional enough - robed jurists, earnest advocates, and intense clients surrounded by bench, bar, and an American flag. But they take place not in government buildings but in offices, hotel rooms - even in factory locations.

``One of our judges likes to quip: `Have gavel, will travel,''' says Judicate vice-president William McQueen.

Mr. McQueen explains that there are instances when court is held on the site of a dispute. For example, testimony was given at a food storage refrigerator plant. The plant's cooling system had broken down and was the subject of the controversy.

But 90 percent of Judicate's hearings take place in private offices and conference rooms converted for dispute resolution purposes.

Judges, or hearing officers, are paid by the case. They are often chosen by the litigants because of their expertise in specialized areas, such as insurance or contract law. All are former trial judges.

Philip Newman, who served for 18 years on California's municipal and superior court benches before his recent retirement from the public sector, is now a full-time hearing officer with Judicate in Los Angeles.

Judge Newman is a disciple of get-right-to-it justice. ``There are three sides to every story,'' he explains. ``The plaintiff's side, the defendant's side, and the truth.''

He says a rapid succession of open hearings - open to litigants, lawyers, and judges but not the general public - usually leads to early resolution.

``Typically, in a personal injury case, there's a demand for $100,000'' in damages, he explains. ``Then there's an offer for $25,000. We end up with a settlement for $50,000.''

Newman stresses that many cases that would take up to 18 months to resolve in municipal court and perhaps up to five years to try in superior court are completely settled by Judicate in less than four weeks.

There are some disputes that are disposed of in a matter of hours - at a total cost of less than $1,000.

A similar matter could result in a 10-day jury trial in a public court - with a price tag of $12,000 or more.

Judicate clients usually agree to binding arbitration - abiding by the final ruling of the judge after he has heard both sides of a case and talked individually with litigants.

The system provides for a limited appeals process.

Judicate - and other court alternative networks - are supported by those in the legal community who criticize the costliness and the slowness of the legal system.

Warren Burger, former chief justice of the US, has been a particular champion of private dispute resolution, describing the public process as ``too costly, too painful, too destructive, and too inefficient.''

George Milko, staff attorney for HALT - a Washington-based public-interest group devoted to reducing the price tag on litigating - says Judicate's approach ``fits right in with our goals to make the legal system less costly and provide more access to it.''

Mr. Milko suspects, however, that Judicate's clients are the ``big boys playing'' - corporate litigants who have a financial interest in not going to court.

And he cautions consumers considering such a service to make sure they understand in ``plain language'' exactly what the costs are and what is expected of them.

Some individual rights groups say they have strong reservations about private courts whose work is not open to public scrutiny. An American Civil Liberties Union official, for example - while not singling out Judicate - says that such a system can ``institutionalize a lack of fairness.''

Judge Newman disputes such charges. He says Judicate serves both rich and poor without bias. ``I can't think of any party having anything to lose by becoming involved in this court system,'' he insists.

To criticisms of Judicate's closed-door hearings policy, William McQueen responds: ``These are private disputes between private parties being adjudicated on private property.''

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