Chief Justice Warren Burger told the American Bar Association today that lawyers fees are too high and that they may be "pricing themselves out of the market."
In his annual critique before the ABA on the efficiency and quality of the criminal justice system, Burger also said the system may afford more protection to the accused than to society at large. He attributed this imbalance to delays in exacting justice and to inadequate bail laws, which govern the release of criminal defendants before trial.
Burger called for a study of the bail laws to correct the situation. "A system of justice that provides the greatest protections for accused persons must not fail in the basic function of a civilized society -- protection of all its members. . . our criminal justice system has not given the kind of protection contemplated.
"People should not be forced to resort to self-help to protect themselves and their homes and property. Constitutional guarantees for the protection of accused persons must be enforced, but society has an obligation to protect not just some but all its people."
Burger also made recommendations on how jurors and judges can function more effectively in the system. "The constant complaint [of people called for jury duty] is that time is spent in varying stages of boredom watching daytime television, reading outdated magazines or playing checkers with others whose time is being similarly wasted.
"All too many citizens who respond to the jury call, initially with a sense of performing a civic duty, are disillusioned by the lack of an adequately organized system or method to make reasonable use of their time."
The federal system also needs more judges, the chief justice said, touching on an issue he has raised in past years. He called for more frequent increases in the number of judges.
Instead of waiting for congressional action to make the increases as is done now, he said the Judicial Conference, which makes policy for administration of the federal judicial system, should be empowered to increase the number when necessary with a congressional veto of its actions as a safeguard.
He said the impact of the 152 new federal judgeships established by Congress last year "will soon be wiped out" by the dramatic and continuing increases in the caseload.
"The quality of the performance of the courts is bound to suffer with this overload," Burger said. "The time has come to find some new method of providing judges for the federal system when they are needed -- not eight, nine or 10 years later depending upon whether the same political party is in control of the White House and the Congress."
As to attorneys' fees, he said that while "lawyers, like all others, must contend with inflation, in the past u5 years or more legal fees have increased more rapidly than the inflated cost of living.
"We should make no mistake about it," Burger said, "there is a risk that lawyers may be pricing themselves out of the market. This must be met by the profession or it may be dealt with by external forces."
Burger did not elaborate on what "external forces" might be applied. The Federal Trade Commission, however, has recently been inquiring into various state and local laws to see if they restrict the flow of legal services in an anticompetitive fashion.
And ABA president Leonard Janofsky warned the lawyers last week that unless they intensify their self-regulatiory effort "it may not be much longer before we lawyers are stripped of our coveted right of self regulation and become governed by legislatures."