March 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 3 • Page 20
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Declining court caseloads reflect societal, other changes
Civil court dockets shrank by 25 percent from 2010 to 2014. What's causing the decline?
Over the last five years, court dockets across Illinois have been shrinking. The Illinois Supreme Court's 2014 Report shows that the overall case load of the Illinois court system has dropped from 3,757,112 cases in 2010 to 2,930,986 in 2014. These numbers include both civil and criminal cases, the latter of which outnumber the former.
Even when filtered for civil cases, however, the numbers show a dramatic decline in court dockets. In 2010, there were 791,412 civil circuit court cases filed. This number also includes domestic relations cases. In 2014, the number dropped to 591,085, a decline of 25 percent.
What's causing this drop-off in filed lawsuits? Given that there are many types of cases bundled into the numbers, it is likely that the reasons vary accordingly.
Fewer foreclosures, med-mal cases
For example, the report shows that the total number of chancery case filings in 2010 were at a high of 110,910. This is unsurprising - the foreclosure crisis was reaching its peak after the economy crashed in 2008. Mortgage foreclosure cases are heard by chancery courts, which saw an uptick in filings. The numbers bear this out; only 42,952 chancery cases were filed in 2014, which comports with the overall slowdown of foreclosure filings statewide.
Law division filings have also been on the decline. Overall filings in 2010 clocked in at 280,442. In 2014, almost 100,000 fewer cases were filed - 187,323 to be exact. The drop-off is largely based on cases under $50,000. They are down to 156,343 from a 2010 high of 246,828.
One possible reason for this decline is that non-contract claims make up less of the total than they used to. According to the Illinois Trial Lawyers' Association (ITLA), medical malpractice lawsuits in Illinois are down 43% since 2003 (http://bit.ly/1QYq5sZ). ITLA also points out that contract cases represent 64 percent of civil case loads nationwide, obtaining the data from a report issued by the National Center for State Courts (http://bit.ly/1QuLFXi). That report shows that the trend in Illinois also exists nationwide.
Joseph A. Power, Jr., founding partner of Power Rogers & Smith, PC, says one factor that has led to the decline in medical malpractice cases is the requirement that a certificate of merit be obtained prior to the filing of a case. The certificate of merit requires a doctor to certify the case with a report indicating that the claim is meritorious.
"This is a good thing," he observes, because it has eliminated a lot of "bad result" lawsuits, where the plaintiff simply experienced a bad result with a doctor. "Bad results aren't always medical malpractice."
Power, who is also the former President of ITLA, points to the decrease in fatalities and serious injuries as another major factor in the decline in civil suits. He attributes the decline to the presence of airbags in cars. "The plaintiff attorneys sued the manufacturers until they put airbags in vehicles," he says. As a result, there are fewer severe injuries and fatalities from auto accidents.
Changing societal attitudes
The idea that many or most civil cases are personal injury cases is also inaccurate, he observes. According to Power, a study by the RAND Institute shows that 1.3 percent of all civil cases are personal injury cases. The same RAND report indicates that only 10 percent of injured parties seek compensation for their damages. Only two percent file a lawsuit.
He believes various societal attitudes contribute. The press has created a "pro-doctor" environment, he says; verdicts for plaintiffs have dropped 29 percent. This may contribute to the decision whether to sue.
Power's impressions are also borne out by the NCSC report, which indicates that only three percent of national tort filings are based on medical malpractice claims. Automobile claims are still the lion's share of the tort claims at 40 percent. As to contract claims, 37 percent are debt collection cases. Another 29 percent are landlord/tenant-related.
The national trend in foreclosure cases seems to match Illinois's data; foreclosures are 13 percent of contract cases filed nationwide. This data point may be slightly skewed, as Illinois classifies foreclosures and evictions as chancery cases. Different classifications notwithstanding, it is evident that civil filings are on the decline, as are criminal cases.
What this may mean for the future of legal practices remains up in the air. That the public is using the court system less is clear. According to ISBA General Counsel Charles Northrup, many legal "futurists" see influences beyond the profession at work. The declining use of the courts may be attributed to the public's fears about the justice system (including the use of lawyers) or the availability of alternative forms of dispute resolution, most notably online platforms, he says.
While the causes for the trend are likely debatable, what seems clear according to Northrup is the loss of core business for lawyers. Regardless of causes and effects, court use will likely remain a leading indicator for an evolving legal profession.