The State of New Jersey is currently going through the budget process for the fiscal year that begins in July 2008. Like many states, NJ is projecting a large budget deficit due to the downturn in the economy. As a result, all government agencies are being asked to tighten their belts. The judicial branch of government (the courts) is being asked to reduce their budget by $27 million (total proposed budget is $636 million and the courts collect roughly $64 million in fees; the total judicial budget runs about $71 per capita).
Judge Phillip Carchman, acting Administrative Director of the Courts testified before the Senate Budget committee this week. In his remarks, he addressed the difficulties of reducing costs in the Judiciary:
The proposed significant budget cuts present unique challenges for the judiciary. In tough fiscal times, when government necessarily looks to reduce spending, people need the courts more than ever. Court business grows rather than shrinks. The judiciary is a people-driven branch, created and functioning to resolve disputes. We cannot eliminate court sessions, particularly in difficult economic times, to absorb the substantial cuts allocated to us. To the contrary, we see record-setting increases ahead in court filings and workload.
He gave some specific numbers in regards to foreclosure actions:
Economic indicators tell us that by the end of this court year, case filings will reach historic highs. For example, foreclosure filings in New Jersey for the first quarter of 2008 exceeded 4,000 per month, a staggering 44 percent increase over the same period last year. This year we are on track to receive an anticipated 49,000 foreclosure filings. This is double the number we received in 2006, just two years ago. And our best estimate is that we may double this number yet again next year.
In the Special Civil Part (claims for under $15,000 which have expedited and relaxed rules), credit card defaults are driving the case loads to record heights, some 621,000 cases projected for this year which is 100,000 more than last year.
He goes on to say how tough economic times tear families apart, increasing demands on the family part (for divorces). It also increases demands on the criminal courts.
The courts in NJ manage their cases to ensure timely hearings. Each case is set against a standard. Cases that are backlogged (behind that standard) account for 12% of all cases. This is roughly the same number as it was last year despite the caseload increasing by 8%.
Removing the backlog, increasing the speed (and lowering the cost) of “justice” is a primary motivator as to why the courts have a CDR (complementary dispute resolution) program. Court-mandated mediation resolves roughly 1/3rd of all civil division cases directly and yet only 1.8% of all cases filed make it to trial. This means that mediation helps set the framework for a later settlement. Without mediation as a core part of the NJ court process, the courts would be so backlogged as to be unable to operate efficiently.