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Public opinion of the courts improves

Staff Writer

Three-quarters of attorneys and two-thirds of the public in California have a favorable opinion of courts in the state, a significant change in attitude from a decade ago, according to a Judicial Council survey released this month. In 1992, when the public was last surveyed, only 46 percent of the public had a positive opinion of the courts.

William C. Vickrey, administrative director of California's courts

Compared with other surveys that have found dissatisfaction with courts in other states and with governmental institutions in general, the findings pleased William C. Vickrey, administrative director of California’s courts.

Vickrey attributed the improvement to major changes in the structure and operations of the courts, including changes in calendar management practices, the creation of specialized courts (such as homeless courts) that respond to broad social needs in the community, one-day one-trial for jurors and consistent rules from county to county.

“The only thing I can point to that has changed that would result in increased positive feelings is how the courts conduct their business,” he said.

Although the overall news was good, the survey found plenty of room for improvement:

  • The cost of hiring an attorney, regardless of people’s income level, is the most commonly stated barrier to taking a case to court.
  • Language difficulties appear to be more formidable in court than in other settings.
  • The greatest concern expressed by survey respondents focused on the influence of politics on court decisions, proceedings that cannot be understood and uneasiness about becoming involved with the courts.
  • High-volume, low-stakes court dockets like traffic and small claims spread ill will for the courts and leave litigants dissatisfied with their experience.
  • Both attorneys and the public involved with family and juvenile cases said they see less procedural fairness than litigants in other types of cases.
  • African-Americans have the lowest approval rating of the courts, although the proportion expressing a “poor” opinion declined from 47 percent in 1992 to 18 percent now.
  • Trust and confidence in the courts is lower than for the police but higher than for the schools and similar to the U.S. Supreme Court. Local courts attract greater public confidence than the state court system.

The survey, conducted by the National Center for State Courts and the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University, questioned more than 2,400 California adults and more than 500 randomly selected practicing attorneys be-tween November 2004 and February 2005. Some questions were identical to those asked in a 1992 survey.

One-third of the respondents were foreign-born, half were non-white and one in five were non-English speakers.

Vickrey said the Judicial Council conducted the survey because “we felt it was time we received a report card from the public about how they feel about their court system so we can be guided about what to focus on in the future.”

The survey noted that the courts have undergone major changes in the intervening years, including trial court unification and a shift in the funding base. How the public views the courts is important, the survey authors wrote, because “whether disputes are brought to the courts for resolution or decided elsewhere depends in part on the perceived fairness and efficiency of the courts.”

The survey was designed to measure the level of approval and confidence in the courts and sought answers to questions about procedural fairness, such as whether rulings are unbiased, judges listen carefully and people are treated with respect.

The “core concern” of the survey addressed issues of fairness, which it found are the strongest predictors of whether members of the public have confidence in the courts. Fairness of outcomes is secondary to procedural fairness among members of the public, while the reverse is true for lawyers, who gave more weight to outcomes in the survey. 

On a scale of one to four, the survey found that attorneys tend to view procedures in the California courts as fairer than the public.

“There are some significant concerns,” Vickrey acknowledged, “especially in the area of whether or not our system is listening carefully to what (litigants) have to say and their ability to participate. This includes how they are treated by the first person they meet to how they perceive what’s happening in the courtroom, whether the system is concerned about how people are impacted by what it does and how it does it.”

Defendants in parking or traffic cases and litigants in family or juvenile cases see less procedural fairness than litigants or defendants in other matters. The survey found that those two groups present distinct challenges: low-stakes, uncomplicated traffic cases versus high-stakes, ongoing and complex juvenile and family matters.

“There is particular urgency,” the survey concluded, “in improving the process of traffic and similar high-volume dockets in ways that meet the criteria of procedural fairness. There is equal or greater urgency to improving procedural fairness in family and juvenile cases.”

Seventy percent of both attorneys and members of the public agreed that people are reluctant to go to court because they are uneasy about what might happen to them.

Respondents were concerned about the length of time it takes to get a court decision, a lack of childcare at court facilities, the distance from home to court and language difficulties. Substantial proportions of practicing attorneys disagreed with the public that judges follow the rules and that juries are representative of their communities.

The survey offers a range of recommendations based on the results, including a redesign for processing traffic and small claims courts, improved procedural fairness in family and juvenile cases, exit surveys of litigants and an examination of the practical aspects of court operations, such as hours of operation and difficult-to-reach courthouses.

Vickrey said the challenges suggested by the survey findings are “not impossible to meet,” and some solutions should be neither costly nor difficult. “We have a huge captive audience that the bar and the courts can focus on,” Vickrey said. “Part of the message to the legal community is that we need to assume some significant responsibility for how people view our justice system. The survey provides a roadmap for how we can continue to make progress and respond to the needs of the public.”

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