The recent “great recession” and the slow recovery that followed it have wreaked havoc on nearly all aspects of American life. Families have struggled to provide work, entire cities have witnessed the gutting of their economic life and local governments have been forced to oversee massive cutbacks in basic services. The Economist reports on a lesser-known effect of the economic crisis: a major and dramatic breakdown in the judicial system:
A typical lawsuit now goes to trial within a couple of years, says Ms Feinstein, but that could soon stretch to five years. The backlog of traffic infractions is already so daunting that it compromises enforcement (and the deterrence of bad driving). And so on. The Californian constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to speedy trial, but it does not technically require courts to administer civil law at all, Ms Feinstein says. So, in theory, civil adjudication could stop altogether, as it already has on one judicial circuit in Georgia. That, she says would bring about the “unravelling of society”. […]This means that the courts are limiting access just when Americans need more adjudication. The recession left a vast legacy of foreclosures, personal and business bankruptcies, debt-collection and credit-card disputes. In Florida in 2009, according to the Washington Economics Group, the backlog in civil courts is costing the state some $9.8 billion in GDP a year, a staggering achievement for a court system that costs just $1.2 billion in its entirety. To make up the funding shortfall, courts are imposing higher filing fees on litigants. This threatens the idea of the equal right to justice, says Rebecca Love Kourlis of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.Even criminal cases are not immune. Some crimes, like domestic violence, have increased with the rotten economy. In Georgia, where court funds have fallen by 25% in the last two years, criminal cases now routinely take more than a year to come to trial. This means that jails are full of the innocent alongside the guilty. Their incarceration adds costs far greater than the alleged savings in the court system. Above all, it causes gross injustice.
The swift administration of justice is one of the basic responsibilities of the state, and judicial breakdown and gridlock is a problem the US can’t ignore. There are a lot of wasteful government expenditures; the judiciary has a weak lobby and it looks as if weaselly politicians are scanting their duty to maintain the judicial system while lavishing money on more politically connected causes.That said, the same computer technology that is changing so many other service industries needs to be more fully integrated into the way we do law. There are ways of making courts and the legal system significantly faster and cheaper than they now are. Let’s hope that the squeeze on court budgets stimulates some creative thinking about how to get this done.