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February 1, 2012
Moving civil cases faster would cost millions

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Measurement changes behavior, 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck told a group of state senators.

To make sure civil cases don’t languish will require a better way to measure how long it takes them to rumble through the system — and hiring more case managers, she said.

chart The price tag is $6.3 million to put in place “Recommendations on Resolving Civil Disputes,” offered in a report by the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability.

Judge Steinbeck’s request met with grumbling from Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, an electrical contractor serving on the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations on January 12.

“What can we do to encourage you all to get back to your judges and see what you can do. . . to decrease costs instead of asking for more money?” Bennett asked.

Perhaps judges can cut down on granting continuances, Bennett suggested, or how about raising the monetary limit in small claims courts where cases move faster?

“Sen. Bennett, this particular system we are proposing will allow judges to take control and manage a case better than we currently have the ability to do now,” responded Judge Steinbeck, vice chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission.

“We, in Florida, have a rule of judicial administration, as well as a rule of civil procedure, that provides that judges should have firm continuance policies, and not grant a continuance unless it is in writing and signed by the party,” she said.

As for raising small claims court limits, she said, that is a policy decision not hers to make.

Thrusting the focus back on the commission’s recommendations, Judge Steinbeck said: “In many ways, this does respond to your very concerns. The difficulty judges have now is the voluminous dockets, which are higher than are necessary for judges to keep up with them. We have been certifying additional judges, and you all have not been in a position to fund them in the recent past.

“This gives judges information, so that they will have the choice, and they can look at lawyers and litigants and say: ‘This case needs to be set for trial or otherwise resolved.’”

In the past five years, she pointed out, civil filings have increased 43 percent in Florida — not even counting the foreclosure explosion. Add in foreclosures, there has been a 198 percent increase in circuit civil filings in Florida trial courts since FY 2005-06.

Yet during the same time, the courts have not received any additional resources and have lost case managers that help judges move cases faster.

Overall funding levels for the state courts decreased by $45 million in FY 2008-09, and that meant laying off the very case managers, magistrates, and law clerks that give judges essential support to handle case loads.

“As we see an uptick in civil filings, we’ve also experienced a loss of employee positions of case managers,” Steinbeck said.

“The model we think will work is to have a judge share a case manager with another judge, so it would be a single case manager to support two circuit judges working on the civil docket.”

The Legislature requested this report, in proviso language in the General Appropriations Act at the end of the 2011 session.

“The swift resolution of justice, especially in the civil area, is vital to the growth and welfare of the state of Florida, as businesses are attracted to states with efficient justice systems,” the report concluded.

The commission’s overarching recommendation is a “differentiated case management system,” a modernized approach based on the degree of complexity of cases, to identify cases when they come in the door and to determine a reasonable time frame for disposing of the cases.

“What we know is that the longer the cases stay in the system, the more costly they are, both to the system as well as the litigants,” Steinbeck said.

Likening the system to a triage nurse at an emergency room, Steinbeck said the new case management system would “make sure that the resources that are there are being used for the cases that really require those resources.”

As the second recommendation, she detailed three performance indicators, based on recognized national indicators:

• Time for disposition — measuring how long it takes to dispose of a case;

• Age of pending cases — looking at a particular docket or dockets and trying to determine the age of cases still pending;

• Calendar clearance rate — measuring how well a court system is doing in keeping up with the cases filed.

Though these measures are based on data currently captured by court clerks, the commission’s report said, certain new reporting requirements would need to be implemented to make sure this information is accurate and available to judges and case managers each day.

“If we are able to put these recommendations into place, we’ll need additional resources in the court system, and the clerks will also need resources because we are depending on them to help us with management of these data points and to provide information that we’ll need to make sure the system is in place and working,” Steinbeck said.

“If judges are supported by adequate staff resources, then that particular judge can do a lot more and handle a lot more cases at a lower cost.”

Adequate staff resources include a database analyst for each of the 20 circuits, she said, “Because in order to measure and manage this system, we will have to be collecting and analyzing the performance indicators I’ve just talked about.”

Another recommendation calls for a $100,000 reserve fund, so circuits could apply for extra money to create technology ideas that promote the resolution of civil disputes in a timely manner and at reduced costs to the justice system.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, questioned the recommendation for dollars to train judges.

“You have judges today who do an exemplary job in clearing their dockets. Why don’t we just get those judges to train the judges that are not?” Fasano asked, noting that would be at no additional charge.

While judges teaching judges is the model for continuing judicial education, Judge Steinbeck noted that a successful differentiated case management system for felony cases in Lee County involved training judges, case managers, and lawyers.

Fasano asked how Lee County paid for that system, and Steinbeck said so much money was saved in bed space at the jail for pretrial detainees, it was mostly funded by the county.

Bennett asked how many other counties have picked up on Lee County’s success to bring down costs.

“It’s always: ‘If you give us some more money, we will save you some money,’” Bennett said.

“Sen. Bennett, this proposal is the ability to capture the data elements that will allow us to highlight best practices, to actually identify a particular county that is doing it faster, cheaper, and smarter. So that we can go to another county and say: ‘Replicate that,’” Steinbeck responded.

“We know that counties all have different needs and caseloads, and it’s not as cookie-cutter as we would hope. But there is an ongoing effort to try to identify how we can save money, and more than that, use the resources we have to be as efficient as we can.

“Sometimes, in order to be efficient, we do need resources.”

[Revised: 03-20-2017]