Sweeping reforms are needed in the way the court system handles its burgeoning caseloads, particularly in the area of domestic disputes, a judge says.

Third District Judge Scott Daniels, speaking to the mid-year meeting of the Utah State Bar, said "a fundamental look at the entire system" is needed."Maybe domestic disputes don't belong in the courts. Maybe alternative programs like arbitration and mediation provide the best way to handle most conflicts," he said.

Daniels' statement responded to a question by fellow panelist James R. Holbrook, an attorney who said he is concerned with the growing use of alternative dispute-solving programs.

"I am shocked at the fees I am seeing attorneys charge in routine divorce cases," added 2nd District Judge Rodney S. Page, also a panelist Saturday.

"I see divorce cases where the entire estate is worth $60,000 and the lawyers on both sides are charging $15,000 each," he said. "We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg."

Third District Judge Leonard Russon agreed. "Maybe we are pricing ourselves right out of a market," he said.

"It's time to re-evaluate the charges attorneys impose. It would be a real tragedy if it got to the point where people could not afford the public judicial system," Russon said.

Daniels said there is a legitimate need for alternative programs such as lay arbitrators and mediators, and courts and lawyers should recognize them as useful tools.

"Courts are the most conservative of institutions," Daniels said. "We still do things the way they did in England in the 1400s. We must remember we're not in the case-processing business, we are in the justice business, and we need to accept change when it is time to change."

Former Gov. Scott Matheson, another panelist, wondered if experienced, older attorneys who are well-known in the community get preferred treatment from judges over younger, unknown attorneys.

"I hope that doesn't happen in my court," said Page. "If young attorneys have those feelings, I would hope they would call me and let me know."

The judges also acknowledged they struggle philosophically with their role as independent, neutral jurists in cases where young, inexperienced attorneys do a poor job on a case their client might otherwise win.

But they said it is usually inappropriate for a judge to offer advice to an attorney or tell him what he or she has missed because of the importance of that neutral role.