Businesses and individuals in the Washington area have filed for bankruptcy at a record pace in the first three months of 1986.

Bankruptcy courts in the region are reporting increases in new cases as high as 43 percent, and similar increases are being reported across the nation despite a relatively strong economy.

Roughly 70,000 American businesses sought bankruptcy protection in 1985. Nearly 300,000 individuals also filed for bankruptcy, making the year one of the busiest in history for the country's bankruptcy courts.

Officials who administer the federal court system project a total of 460,000 bankruptcy petitions for the fiscal year ending in June, while the number is expected to mushroom to 520,000 in fiscal 1987, far above any previous year.

With the overall economy at its most robust in recent years, the surge of bankruptcy petitions has perplexed many bankruptcy experts who had expected petitions to fall from their peak shortly after the 1981-82 recession. Bankruptcies not only are increasing in the Farm Belt and oil states, but they are also on the rise in some regions, including the Washington area, supposedly insulated from economic distress.

"It is rather puzzling," admitted Hal J. Bonney, the U.S. bankruptcy judge in Norfolk, where bankruptcy filings are running 43 percent ahead of last year. "I don't think that anybody knows exactly what the cause is, because the economy is pretty good around here."

In the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Alexandria, which handles cases in the Northern Virginia suburbs, there were 545 bankruptcy filings for the first quarter of 1986 compared with 406 at the same point a year ago.

In the Rockville court, which covers 11 counties in western Maryland, bankruptcy filings rose from 516 during the first three months of 1985 to 705 during the 1986 first quarter.

And there were 213 bankruptcies filed in the District of Columbia court by the end of March, up from 178 at the same point last year.

"Everybody's up to their eyeballs," observed Charles A. Docter, who has practiced bankruptcy law in Washington since 1959. "There hasn't been any let-up in the work we've had since the last recession. It's almost been unbelievable."

In fact, the D.C. bankruptcy court last month shortened its public hours in order to cope with the paperwork overflow.

The deluge of filings since 1979, when the nation's bankruptcy laws underwent dramatic changes, has created a growth industry for lawyers, accountants, investment bankers and others specializing in bankruptcy matters.

The case load has been so heavy in some judicial districts that the Senate last week approved the creation of 49 additional bankruptcy judgeships. The House of Representatives is considering similar legislation.

Experts say that the continued rise in bankruptcies and the faster pace in the past few months is a sign of a number of trends: the unevenness of the economic recovery; the inevitable rise in business failures during a time of high entrepreneurial activity, and, perhaps above all, society's growing acceptance of bankruptcy as a fact of life.

Docter and others who watch the courts are at a loss to cite any broad economic reason for the upsurge in filings. Drawing a comparison with the Southwest, where businesses have been ravaged by falling oil prices, the Alexandria bankruptcy judge, Martin V. B. Bostetter, said he cannot "draw a common thread" between the myriad bankruptcy cases he sees.

"I've been trying to figure it out now for 25 years," mused the judge.

One reason cited by bankruptcy experts for the rising number of filings is the unevenness of the economic recovery, not only geographically, but also between industries and sections of the population.

Lawrence A. King, a bankruptcy expert at New York University Law School, said that bankruptcies in some industries in this country have been triggered by unique market forces. He cited the effect of deregulation on the trucking and airline industries and the impact of foreign competition on companies supported by the steel industry.

Even in areas of economic well-being, individual problems can occur. Gwendolyn B. Crockett started a Washington law firm in 1983 that largely provides assistance to the black community in a variety of civil matters. But she and her associate were forced to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 earlier this year. Under Chapter 11, a business continues to operate, but it is protected from its creditors while it develops a plan to pay off its debts.

Crockett said that clients didn't flow in as fast as she had expected. "What we have experienced is the same thing that other black businesses are experiencing. Our business is hurting because our people are hurting," she said. "When they are hurting, lawyers are the last thing people think about."

To some degree, the rise in bankruptcies appears to reflect the strengths of the economy, rather than the weaknesses. Reid H. Gearhart, who helps track business failures for Dun & Bradstreet, a credit-rating agency, contends that the rising bankruptcies are "not really a negative."

"It can also reflect a high level of entrepreneurial activity," said Gearhart, citing statistics showing a rise recently in the number of new businesses created. "There is a high level of risk associated with starting a new business, and not everybody makes it," he said.

A final factor at play in the boom is the societal acceptance of bankruptcy as a legitimate business tool. Indeed, some creditors believe the new bankruptcy code itself has led to certain levels of abuse. David B. Ward, senior vice president at Beneficial Management Co., contends that "the law is still pretty lax in terms of what you have to do to qualify."

"Bankruptcy is still relatively easy to accomplish, even though an individual may not be in that great trouble," said Ward. He added that bankruptcies cost his company, a huge provider of consumer finance, $28 million in 1985, up from $17 million in 1978.

Many lawyers disagree with Ward, but they do acknowledge that bankruptcy isn't the black mark it once was. With increasing numbers of huge multimillion-dollar firms such as Manville Corp., A. H. Robins Co. Inc. or Continental Airlines apparently more willing to use the bankruptcy courts for business purposes, the rest of society is quick to follow suit.

William E. White, a Justice Department official who monitors bankruptcy cases in the District and Virginia, suggested that "people are more aware of the bankruptcy code as a business planning device or as an individual rehabilitation device. . . . If you or I are running a small company and see [bankruptcy] successfully used [by a larger company], then we'll consider it."

The spur for the increased use of bankruptcy was the overhaul of the federal bankruptcy laws, passed by Congress in 1978 and implemented the following year. The new code turned Chapter 11 into a much more flexible device for companies needing respite from their creditors. The law also broadened the amount of assets individuals filing for bankruptcy are allowed to shield from their creditors.

Total bankruptcy filings rose after the new law went into effect, reaching a peak of more than 374,000 in 1983, according to statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Business bankruptcies were 13 percent of total bankruptcies in 1980, and grew to more than 18 percent during the recession of the early part of the decade.

While bankruptcy has become a more frequent business decision, it still is considered a tough choice.

"Psychologically, it's a nightmare. You weigh all your options. And the options are to walk away or buy time," said Patrick T. O'Rourke, whose Springfield business recently filed under Chapter 11. O'Rourke, owner of Creative Dimension Group Inc., which builds displays for trade shows and museums, said, "I look at it as an option to buy time."