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The Judicial Council is expected to approve new rules today that would relax the fast-track standards that are designed to quickly resolve civil cases. Lawyers have complained for years about the rules, which were implemented in 1986 as the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act. They say judges — especially in Southern California courts — are too strict and regularly ignore pleas that attorneys have scheduling conflicts or don’t have enough time to get ready for complex cases. The defense bar says the problem was exacerbated by the passage last year of a new state law that gave plaintiffs a significant time advantage in summary judgment motions. That change was part of a last-minute bill that changed the civil statute of limitations from one to two years. In response to the complaints, Chief Justice Ronald George earlier this year created a committee of plaintiffs and defense lawyers and judges to examine the court rules. The committee’s recommendations will go before the Judicial Council at its regular meeting in San Francisco. James Sturdevant, who in 2004 will become president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said plaintiffs and defense lawyers were able to agree on how to change the rules because both sides were hurting. “The rules were being very rigidly applied . . . and that’s not the way that cases should be resolved,” said Sturdevant, who runs the Sturdevant Law Firm in San Francisco. He said the changes will not turn back the clock to the mid-1980s, when courts were clogged and some cases took years to wind through the system. Rather, Sturdevant said, the changes will simply provide much-needed flexibility. The proposed changes do three things: They provide more explicit criteria for judges to use at case management conferences; allow judges to grant more continuances; and set different goals for fast track. Previously, the Judicial Council’s fast-track goals told courts to resolve 90 percent of unlimited jurisdiction cases within one year, 98 percent within 18 months, and 100 percent within two years. Statistics show that the disposition rates by fiscal year 2001-02 were actually 65 percent in one year, 84 percent in 18 months, and 92 percent in two years. If the council gives its OK today, the new standards will be 75 percent, 85 percent and 100 percent — which should take some of the pressure off judges and lawyers, proponents of the new rules say. Changing those standards was one of the main goals of the defense bar when it agreed to participate in the fast-track panel. Defense lawyers also wanted to change things so the clock starts clicking with a defendant’s first appearance in court rather than when they’re served. They didn’t get that change, and Wayne Maire, a defense lawyer with Maire, Mansell & Beasley in Redding who sat on the panel, conceded Monday that such a goal probably wasn’t practical. Even so, he, like Sturdevant, was otherwise very pleased with the changes. “The overall effect,” Maire said, “is that we’re not going to take a cookie-cutter approach anymore.”

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