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The Judicial Council is teaming with both plaintiffs and defense lawyers to find medicine for a common pain: civil fast-track rules. Though the rules, created by the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act of 1986, were intended to unstick the sometimes slow-moving gears of justice, plaintiffs and defense lawyers now complain that judges are too often putting case management deadlines above fairness and courtesy. Defense lawyers say they’ve been further squeezed by the passage last year of SB 688. Besides extending the civil statute of limitations to two years, that bill also gave plaintiffs a major time advantage in summary judgments by leaving the defense with less preparation time. “Whatever its merits or demerits, the change in summary judgment has exacerbated the problem. It just further compresses everything to the point where we think you can’t [properly] defend a client,” said Michael Belote, a lobbyist for California Defense Counsel, which represents about 3,500 lawyers in the state. He expects this year’s budget crisis to worsen the problem, Belote added. The working group will consist of members of the Defense Counsel and Consumer Attorneys of California and will be chaired by Second District Court of Appeal Justice Richard Aldrich, said Daniel Pone, senior attorney with the Judicial Council’s Office of Governmental Affairs. Although courtroom lawyers concentrate on the effect that fast-track rules have on their cases and business, Pone said group participants will delve into broader issues surrounding “the fair and efficient administration of cases.” It’s all part of the Judicial Council’s continued examination of civil case management, Pone said. Chief Justice Ronald George will probably send out letters officially appointing the group members next week, Pone said. The Trial Court Delay Reduction Act was slowly phased in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the goal of bringing cases to trial quickly, it established time lines for different types of civil cases based on complexity. The rules, with certain exceptions, require the vast majority of cases to be brought to trial within 12 months, with more complex cases getting 18 or 24 months. Plaintiffs and defense lawyers now say judges are being too strict and are not respecting attorneys’ calendars in order to make sure their court can meet its goals. Judges have overbooked trials and status conferences and forced case dates when attorneys are already in trial or on vacation, according to lawyers on both sides. Although it’s noteworthy that courtroom adversaries are complaining about the same thing, the plaintiffs and defense bars are not exactly standing on common ground. They agree that the right approach is to focus on reforming Judicial Council rules and that a legislative fix might not be necessary. Defense attorneys want to extend the actual time limits. “Is there something magical about 12, 18 and 24 months? Could it be 18, 24 and 30?” said Belote, the defense lobbyist. Belote said he also wants the group to look at starting the clock at a more realistic time. Right now, it begins ticking when the defendant is served, but Belote suggests that waiting until counsel are actually retained would be better. Belote also wants to revisit rules for continuances. “Defense [lawyers] believe that the confines of fast track force judges to ignore loads for attorneys,” he said. Plaintiffs want to look at continuances but aren’t convinced that the Judicial Council needs to change time limits. The good thing about fast track, said plaintiffs lawyer James Sturdevant, is that it keeps defendants from dillydallying. “Cases don’t resolve unless there’s a date for trial. If the trial date is meaningless, then there’s no reason to settle,” said Sturdevant, a San Francisco solo, who, along with two other attorneys, will represent Consumer Attorneys in the working group. Eventually, the group will present its work to the council’s Civil and Small Claims Advisory Committee or, if needed, to legislators. Justice Aldrich said he hopes to be able to show the opposing sides that they may not be as far apart as they believe. Cooperation is becoming more common and more necessary on a variety of judicial issues throughout the state, Aldrich said. “If we have everybody on the same page . . . we’re going to be much more effective as a judicial branch,” he said.

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