Improving access to Utah courts is not just a matter of oiling the hinges on the courthouse doors, says attorney Peter Billings Sr.

Billings ascribes to the philosophy of Yogi Berra: "If the fans won't come to ball park, you can't stop them."Charged with improving access to the court system for all Utahns, the Utah Commission of Justice in the 21st Century is recommending that courts help the public feel more comfortable when using the justice system by reducing the cost of the game, speeding up play, improving team performance and toughening the umpires.

Billings is chairman of the commission's access committee - made up of lawyers, judges, clergymen, educators and legislators - which has studied the obstacles that rob Utahns of equal access and fast, fair justice.

Tougher umpires

The commission advocates that the umpires - the judges - need to take a more aggressive role in requiring lawyers appearing before them to be more responsible and prepared.

It's alarming that a Dan Jones poll conducted for the Justice Commission showed that 24 percent of the lawyers were inadequately skilled and over 35 percent were not well-prepared, said Billings. The same polls showed that only 20 percent of judges felt that the present Utah Bar procedure for disciplining incompetent lawyers is adequate.

"Judges should apply sanctions to move cases toward a just, speedy and inexpensive result," said Billings. "If lawyer is not prepared or is abusing the system, he should be reprimanded by the judge. Members of the bar must recognize that public confidence in the judicial system requires no less."

Filing of frivolous suits can be reduced if judges aggressively condemn this misuse of the courts, he said.

Cutting court costs

The Justice Commission recommends that Utah courts adopt rules to integrate arbitration and mediation - methods of resolving dispute outside a courtroom in a less formal setting - to save cost.

In family law cases, other than physical abuse, parties should be required to follow a mediation procedure, said Billings.

"Our investigation shows that the emotional issues incident to such domestic cases are best resolved by mediation guided by qualified mediators rather than full-fledged judicial hearings." More than 80 percent of the lawyers answering the Dan Jones poll favored mediation in domestic relations cases. Experience in other states that have adopted mediation of divorce cases has shown that when the parties participate in the decisions outside the court system, both are more satisfied. And the mediated agreement works better than court imposed orders, said Billings.

Procedures should be established for settling the barking dog, landlord/tenant and similar disputes by a community-created body in conjunction with small-claims court. "In many cases, people could resolve minor problems by talking with each other - without involving an attorney. Instead of solving problems between neighbors by chatting over the fence, people have become too litigious," he said.

And the commission urges the Utah Supreme Court to adopt a rule requiring bar members to provide a specified amount of pro bono (without charge) service.

Avoiding delays

The commission also advocates establishing speedier procedures for simple summary enforcement of court orders for alimony, child support and property allocation, said Billings.

Electronic alternatives or standardized forms should be set up for filing certain proceedings such as small claims and some domestic matters. Court personnel should be trained in assisting the public in completing the forms.

To better fit the courts to the schedules of the public, the commission recommends the hours of court be extended into the evening.

Fostering teamwork

"We must find new ways to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of disputes in our society. The primary responsibility for improving the judicial system and increasing access to the courts lies with the judiciary. Practitioners, legislators and other professionals may offer advice and support, but the initiative and interest must come from within," said Billings.

The charge of the Justice Commission is to chart the course of the courts for the next century, said Billings. The recommendations of the commission will be fine-tuned and then presented in a series of public hearings.

Jan Thompson is on a leave from the newspaper on a national State Justice Institute fellowship to cover the "Doing Utah Justice" project.