Illinois Bar Journal

March 2016Volume 104Number 3Page 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 ( 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 ( 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.

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

Member Comments (5)

If we are discussing a decline in med-mal case filings in the past five years or so, it seems unlikely that Section 2-622 is the reason; it was passed by the legislature in 1985.

Medical malpractice cases are a small percentage of civil cases. Perhaps the downward trend is the result of two other events. First is the expansion of arbitration for many consumer-credit cases. By application of arbitration clauses in credit card agreements many cases are now out of the traditional legal system. A second impact also comes from the Affordable Health Care Act. Many more people now have health insurance. The result means that they are not being sued by medical care providers.

It is not the big cases that create the big number of lawsuits. Instead it is the mid-range cases where money is sought to be recovered that drive the numbers. You might look there for the answer to the decline.

The express and explicit scope of the attorney's authority is limited to: "....practice as an Attorney and Counsellor at Law in the Courts of this State". Judicial regulation of attorneys providing non- court house services to clients ties one hand behind their backs making them inefficient and ineffective competitors for such business. Having one's name stricken from the Roll of Attorneys can be a much more profitable option for those more likely to be liable for being ineffective counsel on a sinking ship caseload.

Stuart, I agree, med-mal cases are a very small cross-section of civil cases (though they consume a much greater share of the court's resources than their numbers would suggest). I was just responding to a comment in the article.

In the 17th Circuit, we saw a very large influx of foreclosure cases over the past 10 years; we doubled our slots allocated to foreclosure cases in 2010 and it only now is starting to look like we may need to cut back on that. Surely the rise and subsequent fall of foreclosure filings is part of what we are seeing in the change in overall numbers.


I agree with your observations as well. The numbers can be somewhat misleading on this issue. I recall a law review article many years ago that looked at the number of cases based upon population and found that the 1920's were the most "litigious" in our history.

I am not a big numbers guy, I base my observations upon experience from my years on the bench. And that experience tells me that a huge number of cases were consumer credit and health care driven.

Your observation about court resources is the one that is most important. That is why the numbers are meaningless. As judges (active and inactive) we understand that 90% of the cases get resolved with little or no effort but 10% take up more than 90% of our time.

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