Any discussions about reforming the state of our legal system must necessarily include our system of civil justice. The civil justice system exists not to keep society safe from physical harm, but rather to allow individuals a place for solving disputes that do not rise to the level of criminal behavior, whether they involve private citizens, businesses, or the government. But the fact that civil matters do not usually involve direct or immediate threats to the safety of society does not mean that they are of less importance in maintaining a functioning society. Civil justice concerns deserve to be resolved in just as timely a manner as criminal justice concerns and with the same basic tenets of Common Sense.

Unfortunately, in our legal system today, civil matters often fall to the wayside when it comes to getting their fair day in court. Because our criminal courts and civil courts are combined, and because criminal matters are tantamount to keeping society safe from abhorrent activities, civil matters often get pushed to the end of the line when it comes to getting them resolved in the court system. The result is a multi-year process for resolving civil complaints, driving up the costs for individuals and delaying disposition of the matter at hand. This frustration can lead to individuals taking matters into their own hands, creating the potential for civil matters to turn into criminal matters. This is a cycle that has to come to an end.

Just to be clear, when I refer to “civil justice,” I am talking about things like contract law, property disputes, product liability, family issues, community ordinances, building codes, malpractice, and other activities not specifically covered by misdemeanor or felony criminal codes. These are the kinds of legal issues that ordinary people deal with when they encounter the court system. But because of the structure of our civil court system, individuals that attempt to right a wrong against them are faced with an astounding challenge, both financially and legally. Our civil codes are filled with nuances of procedure that enable lawyers and large, financially secure corporations to draw out the process and essentially bleed an individuals ability to gain justice by driving up costs. This creates an inequity in the system that is supposed to be available to all citizens. Further, the number of questionable legal suits brought into the system by citizens and businesses needlessly clog the courts, creating a backlog too large to get through in a timely manner. Justice should be fair and efficient, or it is hardly just at all.

So what can be done to make our civil justice system more responsive to the needs of society? The first step would be to establish two layers of civil justice: one layer that deals with disputes between individuals only, and another that handles any disputes involving businesses and government. The need for this is simple; individual disputes are often less complicated to resolve, and therefore don’t require all of the accoutrements of a full-blown legal trial. Rather than be held hostage to expensive attorney fees, overbooked court calendars, and endless delays, personal civil disputes could be remanded to binding mediation, similar to what is available in many areas today, but with a few changes.

This type of mediation would be required for any disputes that could result a possible financial reward under a defined dollar amount or to resolve other, non-financial problems. A three-member panel of ordinary citizens who serve in that capacity for a defined length of time, and then are rotated out and replaced (similar to convening a jury pool) would hear disputes. Each party would represent themselves at mediation and agree to be bound by the panel’s decision. Panels could be established based on population numbers so that there would be plenty available to handle disputes in a timely manner. This would allow for all citizens to have access to mediation for minor civil disputes without having to pay high court costs, filing fees, attorney fees, or having to wait for an extended amount of time for redress. Decisions would be final, eliminating endless appeals and allowing people to move on with their lives.

In addition to speeding up the process for resolving minor disputes between individuals, binding, mandatory mediation would result in lower overall costs associated with the legal system, and greater participation of the citizenry in the legal process, furthering each persons understanding of the necessity of involvement with societal needs.

For civil matters involving businesses, government, or for individual disputes with a higher potential financial reward, civil courts should be established that are independent of the criminal court system. This is necessary to increase the speed with which these kinds of disputes can be resolved and thus avoid the high costs associated with these types of trials. Like the criminal court system, civil courts can be established at the state and national levels, housed in the same buildings, and sharing the same procedural guidelines. The state courts would be responsible for solving disputes between parties residing in the same state, while the national courts would work on matters that involve parties from different states. A national set of procedures and rules would govern how the courts would operate.

In order for this type of division to work, national civil codes would have to be enacted, similar in nature to the national criminal code, so that every citizen, business, or government entity would understand what kind of conduct was acceptable and what would likely result in being brought to court. Unlike our current cadre of civil codes, these would not vary from state to state, but would be consistent throughout the country, except in cases where geographical concerns dictated slightly different policies, with similar restrictions regarding what constitutes illegal civil conduct. Further, appropriate guidelines for jury awards should be developed to put an end to outrageous awards that tend to get passed on to the public through higher costs. Finally, any type of pre-trial settlements involving product liability, malpractice, or governmental misbehavior should be made public to prevent the same actions from occurring over and over again. Privately made back room deals should not be allowed, preventing non-disclosure contracts that keep the public from being aware of potential problems resulting from poorly made products or policies.

While it has become commonly accepted that the only way to get someone’s attention is by hitting them in the bank account, civil justice should not be viewed as some sort of lottery pool, whereby individuals can strike it rich by claiming damages or concocting dubious claims. Verifiable economic damages should be shown before awards are handed out. Potential economic damages should be based on statistical averages based on the harm done and the loss of potential economic earnings, if appropriate. Intangible damages should be handled in other ways if possible. More importantly, parties on the losing end of civil trials should be made to rectify their errors by correcting the problems that led to the court action. They should be held accountable for repairing and replacing the faulty products, rewriting poorly thought out policy, or standing by their written contractual agreements.

The final piece of the puzzle concerns the legal profession itself. Rather than act as public servants, lawyers have gotten a negative reputation by reaping in more than they recover for their clients and by elongating the legal processes in order to drive up billable hours. The whole point of having legal representation is so that individuals don’t have to learn all the fine points of law in order to stand up for themselves. Simplifying the codes would go a long way in eliminating this problem, but so would limiting the amount of a winning party’s award that a lawyer could claim. This is not to say that attorneys should work for free, but as an integral part of the justice system, they have a duty to advocate for the individual more than they have a right to get rich.

The integrity of the justice system depends on its opacity and its ability to produce equal justice for all parties involved. It should operate on the least amount of money possible while maintaining its integrity as a bastion of truth and honor. In any democracy, the rule of law is one of the pillars of strength by which that democracy will stand or fall. If society can’t look to its justice system and feel confident that anyone, at anytime, can find recourse within it, then it is a broken system and could lead to eventual mayhem. We are edging ever closer to a system that is jaded and increasingly viewed with suspicion. This is not justice at all.