The D.C. Superior Court plans to adopt a new voluntary arbitration progam, the first of its kind in this area, which judges say they hope will prove a simpler, cheaper and far quicker way for residents to have their day in court.
Anyone now suing someone in the city court for more than $750 often can look forward to a frustrating average waiting time of about 18 months--sometimes more than two years--before the case is heard by a judge or jury, according to recent studies.
But under the new court-sponsored arbitration program, which will go into effect Feb. 15, many of those cases would be heard in less than four months. Some observers believe the program eventually could siphon off as many as 1,000 of the nearly 18,000 cases filed each year in Superior Court.
Under the program, anyone filing a civil suit in D.C. Superior Court would be given the option of having an arbitrator hear the case. If both sides agree to arbitration, a local lawyer, experienced in the particular aspect of the law involved, would be selected randomly by the court to hear the case. Either side could appeal the arbitrator's decision to a judge or jury.
The procedure should help cut the current time lag on all civil cases, according to D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who headed the court committee appointed by Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I to develop the program.
"This will provide a speedier and less expensive resolution of disputes," Kessler said, as well as offering "a more informal forum" for resolving cases such as contract disputes, property damage cases and some personal injury cases. The new program does not affect small claims cases, where the monetary claims cannot exceed $750, or landlord-tenant disputes. There is no upper dollar limit, so even $1 million cases might be resolved through arbitration.
Under the present system, with its formal procedures and technical legal requirements, people who are sued or try to sue without having a lawyer--which happens in about 25 percent of the cases--too often give up in frustration when the lawyer for the other side fires a barrage of technical arguments, said Samuel F. Harahan, director of the D.C. Bar court study committee. In many instances, especially when the suit involves less than $2,000 to $3,000 in damages, people do not sue because they assume that legal fees would erase most of whatever money they could recover, Harahan said.
The rules for the arbitration program, Kessler said, are designed so that it would be possible for those who cannot afford or do not want to use lawyers to be able to press their claims effectively. Either side can still hire an attorney, however.
Harahan said the experience of other states with similar voluntary arbitration programs, such as California, Ohio and Pennsylvania, indicates that the D.C. program could eventually handle up to 1,000 cases a year.
The arbitration hearing must occur within 90 days after the arbitrator is selected, and the arbitrator is required to come to a decision within 15 days of the hearing. Arbitrators will be members of D.C. bar. Each side in the dispute must pay $50 to be in the program, a fee designed to defray at least some of the attorney's costs.
Either side will still be allowed to appeal an arbitrator's decision to a judge or jury--but there is a catch. If the side appealing the decision does not get a decision from a judge or jury that is 10 percent better than the award granted by the arbitrator, the side appealing will have to pay the other side's costs, as well as other trial costs and interest on the original arbitration award.
Harahan said studies of arbitration programs in other jurisdictions indicates that a very small percentage of arbitration awards are appealed.