Making Washington’s Courts More Efficient (HB 1248)

The team testifying

The team testifying

Yesterday, four WSAJ EAGLE members – Steve Toole, Shelly Speir, Celia Rivera, and Marshall Casey – testified in the House Judiciary committee on arbitration requirements. Watch their full testimony on TVW. (Court arbitration is different than the forced corporate arbitration we’ve covered previously.) Joining them in the testimony was our Government Affairs Director, Larry Shannon, whose testimony is below:

Thank you for the opportunity to be heard and to speak in favor of one of the most important bills we believe you will see this year. This bill has the potential to create more cost savings and efficiencies in our civil justice system and our courts than any measure we have looked at in many years. The use of the Mandatory Arbitration and the increased usage of District Courts is already saving the courts thousands and thousands of hour of court and judicial docket time, and saving litigants thousands of dollars in costs in every successful MAR case. This bill will dramatically expand the use of this system, with tremendous savings for the state, counties, citizen litigants and the small businesses that utilize this process. This is a true win-win.

Steve, Celia, and Shelly after the hearing

Steve, Celia, and Shelly after the hearing

Background:

Mandatory Arbitration (MAR) is used as a streamlined procedure for resolving disputes within our court  system when a claim is less than $50,000, exclusive of fees, interests or costs. An arbitrator reviews the case instead of a judge, and issues a decision. MAR is a simplified and economical tool for obtaining the resolution of disputes. It is also less formal than Superior Court with limited discovery, and allows for a much quicker resolution of disputes than going to trial, which can take several years to get a date due to an overburdened system. Cases are scheduled within 2-3 months and the vast majority are resolved in that time.

The MAR system also works efficiently by incentivizing both sides to come to the table to reach a good faith agreement. This is because if an offer of compromise is rejected by one of the parties and a trial de novo is ordered, the requesting side must better its position in Court or beat a compromise offer, or risk paying cost and fees to the other party.

Forty-five percent of all filings in our state’s Superior Court are civil cases. The remaining cases include criminal (15%), domestic (14%) and other (26%). All criminal and domestic cases are heard ahead of any civil action, thus showing MAR as a useful tool in quickly resolving civil disputes.

The MAR system was first passed into law in 1979 and implemented in 1980. The program was originally made discretionary for counties to adopt, but the Legislature later mandated its use for all counties with a population of 150,000 or more. A filing fee of $220, paid by the plaintiff, covers the cost of the program.

The program is so successful and cost-efficient, its jurisdictional limits, $10,000 originally, have been consistently raised to take on more cases and ease court congestion: $15,000 in 1982; $25,000 in 1985; $35,000 in 1988; and $50,000 in 2005 (population requirement reduced to 100,000).

Changes to the MAR system made by HB 1248
As a useful tool for lessening the burden on our already stretched courts, HB 1248 will improve and update the MAR system by:

  • Raising the limits to $100,000;
  • Raising the filing fee from $220 to $250 (paid by the plaintiff), providing much-needed income that goes directly to our budget-crunched counties, and increasing the filing fee for requesting a trial from $250 to $275 ;
  • Require that an aggrieved party who is filing the trial de novo must sign the declaration providing more flexibility in scheduling and discovery by requiring hearings to be held between 21 and 75 days after filing.
  • Increasing concurrent jurisdiction limits in District Court to $100,000.
Rep. Matt Shea with Marshall

Rep. Matt Shea with Marshall

The value of this concept:

WSAJ has reviewed extensive research on the MAR program, especially in King County where the Judges conducted an extensive survey over the last two years. In addition, a member of ours hired some college researchers to also look at great depth in the system as it exists around the Puget Sound area counties. Most recently, we are in the middle of a survey of our membership to try and review what the impact of this proposed legislation could be in terms of diverting lawsuits onto the MAR or District Court track and the save extensive time in our court system and judicial dockets.  We will continue to build this database of information, but let me share with you some of our preliminary findings.

First, some results from the judicial survey. While this is limited to King County for now, we are gathering information from other counties, too, and will create summaries on a county by county basis as well as state wide. But King County does account for over half the state wide total of MAR cases, so it is a significant sample.

Over the last seven years, in King County, an average of roughly 1400 cases per year are noted for arbitration. It is worth noting that 42% of these cases settle before the arbitration is even conducted. Of the other 58%, two-thirds of the arbitrations resolve the dispute once and for all. Only about 33% of those arbitration awards results in a trial de novo request, and of those requests, approximately 10% of them actually go to trial. That is fewer than 2% of the total number of cases noted for arbitration. Up until a request for de novo is made, these case never enter a judicial docket.

This means that over 80% of these 1400 cases never require a single moment of judicial docket time. They are handled and resolved completely separate and apart from the judicial docket and cost the court system nothing. Those litigants get to see their cases resolved in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost that a trial for the same case would have required.

Without going into too much statistical detail, we believe that looking at our responses in our own survey about how this change would impact civil litigation, that the number of cases noted for MAR would at least double the number of cases moving on to the MAR track, or being filed in the District Court. We believe this is a conservative estimate.

The benefits from this are many and help all parties. The increases could raise as much as an additional $350-$400,000 for counties through the increased filings and increase in arbitration fees, and also increase monies raised through the de novo filings by another $150,000 or so. (Please note, these are very rough projections because it is impossible to know what the exact impact will be. But I am happy to share my methodology with you.) The counties will save thousands of hours of court time and judicial docket time. The pressure on court funding by the state will be slightly alleviated.

An additional major consideration in looking at this bill is the fact that citizen-litigants and the defendants in these cases that go to trial spend as much is 10 times as much in out-of-pocket cost in the same case if it is handled through MAR. Literally, as much as 10 times the out of pocket costs. Cases that might cost $2,000 out-of-pocket going through mandatory arbitration can cost as much as $20,000 or more out of pocket to go to trial.  That is largely a result of the cost of expert witness time and other additional costs that trial requires, and of course it costs counties thousands of dollar an hour to run a jury trial. All these costs are reduced dramatically under this proposal.

This bill is a true win-win for all parties. The demands and the pressure on the state for additional judicial slots will decrease. Counties are perhaps the biggest beneficiaries as they will also see a tremendous reduction in the judicial dockets and pressures and the time and money spent conducting jury trials. At the same time they will also benefit significantly from the increase in the filing fees. Citizen litigants will see their cases resolved in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost that they would have to spend to go to trial. This will be a dramatic increase in access to justice for run of the mill cases that nonetheless jolt the citizen’s life. Small businesses, who file between 25 – 30% of these cases will also enjoy the same benefits, and finally defendants will also enjoy a swift and certain resolution for a fraction of the cost and can go on with their lives.

It is not often that we have an opportunity to make such a simple and yet dramatic change that provides so many benefits. The MAR program is a very successful one and national model, and this takes it to a new level. The pioneers of this program and the original legislature that adopted it deserve great credit, and the sponsor and great group of co-sponsors deserve credit for bringing this idea forward.

Let’s build on the history of success, and let’s work together to pass HP 1248. We look forward to working with you as this moves forward. Thank you for considering our views.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s