I’m not much of a courtroom lawyer. I work mostly with technology, legal marketing and practice management. Perhaps its my distance from the practical nature of courthouse processes that leaves me somewhat unforgiving of the is-ism I see in relation to Chambers applications. By is-ism, I mean the mistake of confusing the way something is with the way it must be. I’m writing this blog post because I think there has to be a better way to hear Chambers applications.
Of Time and Money (aka Billable Hours)
Two of the dominant discussions within the legal community relate to a) unaffordable legal services and b) the lack of “work-life balance” for lawyers. In other words, lawyers cost too much and they work too much (there’s a causal link in there somewhere I’m sure). Countless committees, inquiries, commissions, and reports have made this case much more eloquently. For my purposes, Chambers at the Vancouver Courthouse is a microcosm of how the status quo is failing both clients and lawyers. Without dwelling on the administrative details, lawyers schedule their Chambers application and show-up with the goal of being heard by a Judge or Master.
My experience has been that both Judges (or Masters) as well as the clerk and registry staff do their level best to keep everything moving along. This involves an ongoing game of musical chairs in which longer applications get pushed back in the scheduling list. Between a general lack of courthouse resources and increasing numbers of inexperienced lay litigants, the system is stubbornly slow. Chambers applications are inevitably bogged down. For the lawyers, the waiting is the hardest part.
Waiting is the Hardest Part
Because judicial resources are precious (a point I don’t contest), lawyers are expected to wait in Chambers until their matter is ready to be heard. This can be hours. In some cases, time expires before a matter is heard and both sides must return to try again another day.
Maintaining rooms full of waiting lawyers is not an efficient use of lawyers’ time and it certainly doesn’t help control costs for litigants. Lawyers can wait 2 or 3 hours for their 30 minute application to be heard. At $300/hour, these waiting costs are entirely borne by the client. Multiply this by the number of lawyers lining the benches and you start to get an idea of the full cost. This is just one example of how inefficiencies in the system are putting justice completely out of reach for most people. Moreover, because lawyers tend to be incommunicado while in court, they must then work to catch-up once they’re done at the courthouse. For many lawyers, this means staying-up late into the night to catch-up on correspondence and preparation for subsequent applications and trials.
Unlike other problems with the justice system, such as the increasing complexity of substantive legal matters, waiting around for Chambers applications can be fixed. Although I lack the requisite qualifications to advise on judicial reform, I have a specific proposal so crazy, it just might work…
My Proposal: SMS Lawyer Paging
Chambers applications are not unlike any number of modern restaurant chains. Due to the volume of customers arriving at one time, not everyone can be seated. Because managers don’t want clients milling about and making noise on the immediate premises, new arrivals are dispatched with a pager system. They are notified when their table is almost ready so that they can return the restaurant. Many versions of this process work by text message.
My proposal is as follows. The courthouse should run a pilot project in which court clerks are equipped with some sort of paging system. The market is full of such products that work with mobile phones (e.g. TapGuest) and can be easily managed with an iPad. Lawyers may then arrive at the beginning of Chambers, give their name and cell phone number to the clerk and get a preliminary estimate of when their matter may be heard. They can then leave Chambers and wait to be notified when their matter is getting close to being heard (1 matter away). They would have at least 10 minutes to return to Chambers after being paged or lose their “table.” If they missed their window, their matter would be pushed to the back of the list. This is not very different from the current system.
In the Vancouver courthouse, lawyers could then do research and/or work from the courthouse library. They could return client phone calls or emails (the number one complaint to the Law Society). Quite simply, they could practice law rather than waiting around to practice law.
The costs associated with my proposal are well under $1,000.
It’s a modest proposal and it just might work.