Curto: Sandy victims' next insult: backlog in civil court system

Our courts are mired in delay, bogged down

Our courts are mired in delay, bogged down with countless cases. Photo Credit: iStock

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If you thought you were hit hard by superstorm Sandy, just watch what the court system does to you when you try to fix the damage left behind.

Since the devastating storm struck last October, tens of thousands of claims have been made to government agencies and insurance companies by homeowners who suffered damage. Besides the usual civil litigation in our courts -- the personal injury cases, landlord-tenant disputes and divorce proceedings -- there will be thousands of additional lawsuits filed by people whose properties have been damaged and who are entitled to compensation. These homeowners may also be entitled to a reduction of their real estate taxes -- suits that are brought to the same judicial system for resolution.

Given the financial stakes and emotional toll, many of these cases probably will not be resolved amicably. The legal system, already overburdened and unresponsive, will be deluged by more litigation.

The destruction wrought by Sandy is now seven months old, yet this is just the beginning of the legal aftermath. As lawsuits wind through the judicial process, experience predicts we will see some protracted cases lasting five years or longer. Sandy's victims, many of whom lost their homes and most of their possessions, need financial help now. But given the state of our legal system, nothing happens now -- not even close to it.

The civil justice system today takes so long to conclude disputes and is so costly to navigate that it is virtually impossible for the average person to rely on it to solve problems. In normal day-to-day life, such dysfunction leads to growing dissatisfaction and restlessness. But for those buffeted by crisis, it can lead to desperation and despair.

The central issue is the excessive amount of time it takes to resolve legal issues, caused by numbing administrative procedures. Time blocks the moral imperative of any court attempting to dispense justice. No institution can function long-term in such a slow and expensive manner. The old saying "Justice delayed is justice denied" has a deep and abiding meaning for our society.

The problem lies not with the basic principles of law. Over the years, the judicial system has evolved according to the will of the people, giving us moral and lawful equality. The pillars of American jurisprudence remain sound.

Rather, the problem lies in the administration of our legal system. It has not evolved fast enough to match the needs of a culture driven by accelerating technological change.

Today, our courts are mired in delay, bogged down with countless cases. Lawsuits often take years, cost tens -- or even hundreds -- of thousands of dollars, drain us psychologically, and produce outcomes that few can predict. With each experience in the legal system, people lose confidence in its ability to deliver justice.

Most cases are settled with a compromise, with one person paying less than they should and, therefore, the other party receiving less than they deserve. This is especially true when you take into account legal fees and court costs.

The devastation caused by Sandy has exposed the dire need to improve our physical infrastructure -- electrical grids, bridges and roads, flood zone construction standards, and emergency preparedness systems. But what about our legal infrastructure? Even as we analyze ways to prepare for future storms like Sandy, we do little to address the tsunami of excessive time that is swamping our court system.

We need to raise the dollar limits of the more efficient small claims courts. Individuals who bring frivolous lawsuits should be required to pay the legal fees of the other side. We need more judges with broader authority.

Before we find our judicial system irretrievably under water, we must fix the administrative infrastructure that has left us vulnerable to the ravages of excessive delays and untenable costs. Through our mastery of time, the legal system will once again reflect the will of its people, ensuring justice for future generations of Americans.

Anthony V. Curto is the author of "The Time for Justice: How the Excesses of Time Have Broken our Civil Justice System."

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