While money gets tighter, more people want access to the court system.
For instance, in Oneida County, Wisconsin, case filings in 2002 were at 8,535 per year. In 2006, that number increased to 9,629. Now, court personnel say that the number of pro se litigants has increased greatly along with caseloads, while court staff numbers have shrunk along with the court’s budget.
Oneida officials want the same number of employees, including court employees, to spread their skills to more service areas. For instance, a secretarial position has been reconfigured to be a Family Court Coordinator. Not only does this position involve more responsibility to the judges, but with the increase in pro se litigants, it also involves more time and energy spent explaining the legal process to the public.
It’s not just Wisconsin. Even as early as 1998, state courts reported increased numbers of pro se litigants in everything from family court (75% of cases with at least one party pro se) to landlord/tenant court (92% of tenants pro se). In more recent years, the number of pro se litigants has shot up in traditionally lawyer-filled areas like large civil (48% have one pro se party) and probate (38% have both sides pro se). Most recent numbers indicate that 60% of judges noted a significant increase in pro se litigants in the last year alone, specifically with middle-income litigants.
The American Bar Association Journal addresses court budget cuts and access to justice in its June 2011 issue. Fortunately, some of the experts in the article, “Sustaining Justice: 10 Experts Tell How Courts Can Do More with Less” discuss alternative dispute resolution as a creative way to deal with growing caseloads and shrinking budgets. One author urges legislatures to commit funding to alternative dispute resolution systems within the court system. This is particularly apt in the face of New York State’s recent drastic cuts to mediation programs. Unfortunately, this mention of mediation is buried in an article ominously titled, “Courts Must Do More to Justify Budget Requests.” Another author suggests simplifying the civil process, but only mentions advancing alternative dispute resolution systems as a “possibility” after civil procedure revisions and case-flow management guidelines have been instituted. The author does highlight that litigant satisfaction needs to be a greater focus in access to justice discussions.
Some courts are taking ADR ideas and applying them as central parts of their justice systems. Colbert and Lauderdale County District Courts in Alabama have turned to mediation to assist with growing caseloads, shrinking staff, and increased numbers of people entering court without legal assistance. Colbert District Judge Chad Coker and Lauderdale District Court Judge Carole Medley plan to offer volunteer mediators in every civil courtroom by the end of the summer. This comes after a call from Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, of the Alabama Supreme Court for courts in the system to try mediation for smaller monetary cases. Stakeholders cite keeping cases moving and reducing court expenses as reasons for the offering.
With the flood of pro se litigants and the dam on funding, alternative dispute resolution systems should be at the forefront of the discussion about how to provide access to justice on a limited budget. Certainly, ADR is not appropriate in every situation and courts should be attentive to the particularities of every case to ensure the appropriate recommendations are made. However, litigant satisfaction, speedier case flow, and pro se education – improvements sought in courtrooms across the country – are all core to ADR. The National Center for State Courts has recognized how mediation empowers pro se parties to access justice by resolving issues themselves. It also recommends instituting small claims mediation programs in every small claims court as an immediate, cost-effective court innovation. RSI continues to seek ways to empower courts make ADR a priority, especially in these difficult economic times. After all, mediation is not only the wave of the future, but a necessity right now.