More than a year after closing most of the LA Superior Court’s ADR program, in conjunction with consolidating and closing courtrooms around the county and other cutbacks, how is the court faring? For all the predictions of disaster, it seems this court system is managing surprisingly well. The courts have been able to maintain most trial dates, in the administrators’ view probably the most important requirement for keeping the court processing its workload. Local rules have been modified to decrease the number of court appearances, especially in personal injury cases. Judges are figuring out how to muddle through with fewer staff positions, and parties are coping with a system that has significantly reduced their ability to interact with court personnel. In other words, cases are still moving through the system, but they are getting less attention along the way.
Cases that used to be resolved with the aid of the ADR department’s mediation are still being resolved somehow–presumably either through private mediation, or through negotiation by the parties’ attorneys themselves, or through the court’s expanded settlement judge program. What has slipped somewhat is the court’s ability to resolve motions. In contested cases where the parties feel the need to file discovery motions or summary judgment motions or other motions, the courts cannot set those motions for hearing as quickly as they used to, and that has resulted in significant delays.
As a result, the court is still looking for help in processing its large caseload. Meanwhile there are still lots of mediators out there who would be willing to help. It’s frustrating that we can’t seem to figure out a way to put them back to work. In the court’s view, what is lacking is an administrative structure. In the mediators’ view, what is lacking is a push from trial judges to send cases out to mediation.
Perhaps we need to stop looking at mediation programs merely as a means of helping the courts clear their dockets. Mediation’s true value is instead providing a means for parties to have their concerns heard and perhaps understood. That is something the courts are simply unable to provide for the vast majority of cases passing through the system. Most litigants experience the court system as a maze where they hardly ever find a chance to interact with the judge, and never have an opportunity to tell their stories. Finding a way to steer more cases to mediation would reduce the court’s workload to some extent, but would also have the chance of increasing litigants’ satisfaction with the justice system.
By Joe Markowitz