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Workgroup on Improved Resolution of Civil Cases given more time to respond to comments

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Florida courtsThe Supreme Court has granted a Judicial Management Council workgroup more time to respond to the scores of comments generated by its sweeping proposal to speed the resolution of civil cases in Florida.

The Workgroup on Improved Resolution of Civil Cases filed a 450-page final report, including two appendices and proposed rule amendments, on January 10.

The panel was facing a twice-extended, June 23 deadline to respond to public comments, but Second District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Robert Morris, the workgroup chair, said the panel has been inundated.

“To date, the Workgroup has received 68 comments, some of which have been late filed,” Judge Morris wrote. “There is insufficient time before [the deadline] for the 10-member Workgroup to meet to review, discuss, and determine the appropriate responses to the concerns and issues raised in the comments.”

Justices granted an extension until September 20.

The workgroup last year circulated a draft proposal to various rules committees, and made revisions based on the initial responses, before filing the final report.

But the proposed amendments to Rules of General Practice and Judicial Administration, Rules of Civil Procedure, Small Claims Rules, and Rules of Mediation, are so comprehensive — some have labeled them “groundbreaking” — that interest in commenting has been high.

The proposed changes call for establishing a “differentiated case management” system that requires setting an inflexible trial date at the beginning of a case and strict deadlines for motions and rulings. Judges and lawyers who fail to meet them could face sanctions.

The Florida Bar, in a comment limited to “general observations and recommendations,” called the proposal an “abrupt departure” from past litigation practice.

The Bar asked the court to consider whether additional complexity and rigidity in the Rules of Civil Procedure would “unfairly advantage larger law firms and wealthier litigants and may serve to deny access to justice and disadvantage litigants with fewer resources.”

Proposed changes to Rule of Civil Procedure 1.460 would severely restrict a judge’s ability to grant continuances, “even when one may be appropriate to safeguard a lawyer’s or judge’s mental health and wellness, and in turn protect clients and the public,” the Bar wrote.

Fourteenth Circuit Chief Judge Christopher Patterson, in a comment filed on behalf of the Chief Judges of the Circuit and County Courts of Florida, called the workgroup’s effort, “monumental,” and some of the proposed civil procedure rule revisions “overdue.”

“The chief judges report broad consensus supporting many of the proposed rule changes,” the comment states, including an “emphasis on the enforceable expectation of a reliable trial date, set as early as practicable and with few exceptions (proposed Rule 1.440 and others).”

But the group stressed that the consensus was “conceptual” and not unanimous.

“The chief judges also report consensus on some broad and specific concerns,” the comment states. “In general, these concerns stem from a severe lack of resources to comply with some of the proposed changes and from loss of discretion.”

The proposal would be too difficult to implement in county courts, and they should be exempt entirely, the chief judges recommended.

Palm City attorney Paul Regensdorf, stressing that he was commenting only as an individual, noted that he is a 50-year Florida Bar member who has chaired or served on various rules committees since 1976.

Offering a “broad observation,” Regensdorf warned “there is no present crisis sufficient to warrant the simultaneous changes to so many rules using as-yet untested proposals.”

Regensdorf urged the court to refer some of the workgroup’s proposed amendments to the Civil Procedure Rules Committee for further discussion and consideration. Regensdorf noted that the Supreme Court has looked more frequently to workgroups and special panels to address various challenges and suggested that “it may well be time for the Court to consider a significant overhaul to the systems being used to prepare and revise proposed changes to all rule sets,” or at least civil rules.

“The principal criticism of these rules is that they are far too cumbersome, require far too many ‘touches’ by the court and court staff between the start of the process and the end of it,” Regensdorf wrote. “Without further staffing [an unlikely prospect] most judges seem to feel that the current proposals are unrealistic and unworkable.”

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