The image of a black-robed judge settling legal disputes would change in the District if various study groups have their way.

The groups, including a D.C. Bar committee and a D.C. Judicial Conference committee, are suggesting instead that wide ranges of civil cases be taken out of the normal D.C. Superior Court system and put into a voluntary, court-annexed arbitration system in which lawyers -- not judges -- would resolve lawsuits.

The panels are making the recommendation despite some arguments that the use of arbitrators might actually prolong court delay, instead of shortening it as intended, and might be used as a dumping ground for unchallenging, insignificant cases.

The main recommendation for an arbitration system come from a special committee set up last year by the D.C. Judicial Conference to examine the feasibility of a "short-track", or quicker, system to handle civil cases here. Fairly simple civil cases now take an average of 18 months to resolve in Superior Court, with complex ones taking an average of two years, the study showed.

Although that lag is not too serious when compared with other municipal courts, most lawyers -- and litigants -- here believe it is too long and should be cut.

The D.C. Bar committee that is studying the city's court system -- named the Horsky committee after its chairman, Charles Horsky -- is circulating a draft report that includes a proposal to increase the money limit for small claims cases from $750 to $2,500 to cut back the court's load in that area. In addition, that group suggests a voluntary pilot arbitation system in other Superior Court divisions.

The Judicial Conference committee chaired by D.C. Superior Court Judge James A. Belson, has circulated its final report, meanwhile. That report also comes to the conclusion that voluntary arbitration system would achieve the "goal of simple, prompt and inexpensive disposition of cases."

It concluded that the system should be voluntary instead of mandatory after noting that mandatory systems are meeting with mixed reviews in some large cities across the country. In Los Angeles, for example, a mandatory arbitration system has increased rather than reduced the caseload.

A voluntary system, however, indicates that the parties themselves are interested in a short solution to their legal problems and would therefore be "much more favorable," the Belson committee found.

Under the Belson proposal, all cases filed in Superior Court -- except for small claims, landlord-tenant actions and cases involving claims for equitable relief -- would be eligible for arbitration. Each side could strike one of three proposed arbitrators from a panel, and arbitration would be conducted within the next 120 days.

Thirty days after an arbitraion hearing -- which the parties had decided in advance would be either binding or nonbinding -- the arbitrator would render his or her decision. If the parties were unhappy, either side in a nonbinding case could then demand a trial with a financial sanction if the party making the trial demand did not improve his position at trial.

But an arbitration system needs arbitrators, and that's a problem. Therefore, the Belson committee is asking the bar to provide a core of experienced practitioners who would give their time and even their office space to conduct the arbitrations.

Thus, the Belson committee proposal dovetails with a proposal by another D.C. Judicial Conference committee -- headed by D.C. Appeals Judge John Ferren -- that lawyers here provide either time or money to help deal with court problems such as needy litigants.

One of the ways in which attorneys cuold volunteer their help, according to the Ferren proposal, would be to serve as arbitrators if an "appropriate program" is developed.

Washington attorneys will be able to discuss both the Ferren and Belson committee plans at the D.C. Judicial Conference here next week. Odds are both discussions will make for a livelier conference than ones held in the past.