Civil matters make up the largest segment of the State courts' caseload, representing approximately 38 percent of their dockets in 1997. The issues determined in the civil justice system are as varied as human experience itself: from a single slip-and-fall to environmental disasters; from small claims disputes to multimillion dollar corporate battles; from suits seeking governmental benefits to cases challenging governmental actions.
In 1997, the courts focused attention on two particularly significant portions of its civil caseload - housing matters and commercial cases. It also addressed the problem of litigation delay throughout the system, and continued to explore new models of Alternative Dispute Resolution.The New York City Housing Court Program
Each day last year, over 3,000 matters appeared on the calendars of the 35 judicial officers in the Housing Part of the New York City Civil Court - better known as Housing Court. The vast majority of these cases were eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent, and the bulk of these involved litigants not represented by counsel. Not surprisingly, given this combination of massive caseloads, litigants unfamiliar with the legal process and limited judicial resources, the Housing Court litigation experience has been notorious for long waits, short appearances and overall confusion.
In 1997, legislative action - in particular, the rent deposit provisions of the State Rent Regulation Reform Act - promised to further increase the workload of this busy court. Viewing this as an opportunity to conduct the first top-to-bottom review of the Housing Court since its creation in 1972, the court system went on to develop a reform plan to build a court that would better meet New York City's current and future housing justice needs.
One key feature of the plan is more streamlined case processing procedures. The central intake part has been replaced by a system of direct case assignments to new function-based parts such as Nonpayment/Holdover Resolution Parts, Cooperative/Condominium Resolution Parts, New York City Housing Authority Resolution Parts and Drug and Illegal Activity Holdover Resolution Parts. If a case is not settled in the Resolution Part, it is referred directly to a Trial Part. This division of operational functions allows Housing Court judges more time to assure fair settlements and try cases without interruption.
The plan also expands services for self-represented litigants. On-site Public Resource Centers are staffed with Housing Court Counselors and stocked with procedural handbooks, videotapes and other materials. The Centers also will house interactive computer terminals to help litigants with the preparation of form petitions and answers. For aid with more complex matters, a Citywide Volunteer Lawyers Project is now in formation.
A new position of "Housing Court Resource Assistant" has been created to carry out prompt site visits at the court's request, which will help judges more quickly resolve disputes over building conditions. A new "Housing Court Buildings Database" - that includes records from the City Department of Housing Preservation and Development - will allow the court to check the status of reported violations as well as pending administrative or court proceedings involving the same building or landlord. A Housing Court Mediation Program has been developed to accept referrals of cases that may best be resolved in a forum that allows the parties to air disagreements while working toward a settlement.
Implementation of the Housing Court Program began in January 1998 and will continue throughout the year.The Commercial Division of the New York State Supreme Court
In November 1997, the court system celebrated the second anniversary of the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court, the nation's first general trial court devoted exclusively to business litigation. With five parts operating in Manhattan and one in Rochester, the Commercial Division provides an expert and expeditious forum for resolution of commercial disputes. All cases assigned to the Division receive rigorous judicial management, with court-imposed time frames for completion of discovery, motion practice and trial. Appropriate cases may be referred to the Division's court-annexed ADR program, where parties may either select from an extensive list of volunteer neutrals or engage the services of a private ADR principal.
Statistics show that these measures are having a significant impact on "business as usual" in this court. In 1992, those contract cases in New York County that were resolved prior to the filing of a note of issue were an average 610 days old at the time of disposition; cases resolved at the note of issue stage averaged 920 days. Last year in the Commercial Division, such cases were resolved in 396 days and 546 days respectively - representing decreases of 35 percent and 41 percent in each category.
A survey of attorneys and neutrals involved in cases sent to the Manhattan Division,s ADR program reveals a high level of satisfaction with that component of the court as well. Court records indicate that the settlement rate for referred cases is 53 percent, with additional cases achieving settlement after the ADR process was formally completed.
The Division continues to serve as a laboratory for court-based technological innovations, such as its computerized case management program and Courtroom 2000, its completely computer-integrated courtroom for the future (see page 16).Local Task Forces on Litigation Cost and Delay
Citing public dissatisfaction with escalating costs of litigation, the court system's Committee on Professionalism and the Courts (also known as the Craco Committee) recommended the creation of task forces in each judicial district to study the problem and suggest solutions. Underlying the Committee's recommendation was a belief that local task forces would best know their areas' culture of practice and would be best positioned to craft remedies to address local needs and concerns.
In November 1996, more than 130 judges and lawyers around the State agreed to serve on such Task Forces in each of the State's 12 judicial districts.
The Task Forces began meeting in January 1997, working closely with Administrative Judges in their districts and local bar groups. All sought input from the public, with many conducting public hearings.
Reports from each Task Force are now being assembled, and many of their recommendations will be implemented in a Statewide Civil Justice reform program to be announced later this year.Alternative Dispute Resolution
Alternative Dispute Resolution is a general term used to describe a number of different techniques that can promote quicker, cheaper and less stressful resolution of some disputes. In 1996, after a thorough review of the subject, the court system's ADR Project recommended that the range of dispute resolution options available in the State should be expanded.
As previously described in this report, ADR programs are currently operating in the New York City Housing Court, the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court and selected matrimonial parts. Additional programs launched during 1997 include:
Plans are also underway for use of neutral evaluators for Supreme Court civil matters in the Third Judicial District (which includes Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster Counties) and a two-track pilot program for personal injury matters in Erie County Supreme Court that offers a choice of binding arbitration or non-binding mediation and neutral evaluation.
To oversee implementation and evaluation of these programs, the court system announced in January 1998 the appointment of Catherine Cronin-Harris to the newly created post of Statewide Coordinator of Dispute Resolution Programs for the Unified Court System.
For more detailed information about the Housing Court initiative, see New York State Unified Court System, Housing Court Program: Breaking New Ground (September 1997), available from the Office of Court Administration and on the courts' website.