High-Volume Civil Dockets – From Challenges to Solutions

The National Center for State Courts’ 2016 Trends in State Courts includes an article focused on the impact that high-volume cases, such as consumer debt collection, landlord/tenant, and small claims, have on the overall civil caseload. Authored by Paula Hannaford-Agor, NCSC’s Director of the Center for Jury Studies, and Hannah E. M. Lieberman, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C., Meeting the Challenges of High-Volume Civil Dockets identifies the distinctive challenges associated with high-volume dockets and proposes solutions.

While much of civil justice reform efforts over the last ten years has focused on the cost and delay associated with more complex cases, the recent Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts study illustrated that nearly two-thirds of the state civil caseload is comprised of contract cases, and most of those cases are debt-collection, landlord/tenant, and mortgage-foreclosure cases. Monetary values are relatively modest in these cases, most cases result in default or dismissal, and defendants are overwhelmingly unrepresented. While civil justice issues like excessive cost and delay are more pressing in complex litigations, the primary concern with the high-volume cases is ensuring due process and fairness. Concerns include inadequate service, inadequate pleading, insufficient litigant information, confusing and chaotic courtrooms, and hallway settlements.

The authors note opportunities where courts can play a significant role in addressing the inequalities and abuses that occur:

  •          Improve service of process and other notifications
  •          Require adequate pleading
  •          Provide accessible and meaningful legal assistance to unrepresented persons
  •          Remote access
  •          Control the conduct of attorneys in the courthouse.

Like the Landscape study, the research on high-volume dockets was undertaken to inform the deliberations of the Conference of Chief Justices Civil Justice Improvements Committee. The Committee’s Recommendations, which include a Recommendation focused on high-volume civil dockets, will be presented to the Conference of Chiefs for approval at their annual conference later this month.