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Task force study examines ways to make Iowa courts more efficient, affordable

Trish Mehaffey, CR Gazette –

The task force that spent a year studying and considering court innovations to make Iowa courts more affordable, less complicated and more efficient released its final report late Wednesday.

The Civil Justice Reform Task Force, comprised of a 14-member steering committee who were appointed in December 2009 and then 71 other members representing business, law, labor, medicine, industry and consumer groups were appointed in August 2010 to find ways to improve the system.

The Iowa Supreme Court will now review the recommendations and findings to consider implementation of cost-effective and promising reforms that will match the needs of Iowans, according to a news release.

Back in January, some of the task force members said they didn’t think the recommendations went far enough or provided adequate cost cutting ideas, but all agreed it was a good start to overhauling the system.

Several lawyers and some task force members said in January if changes were not made in the court system, it would become obsolete for civil cases. They said the system as it is now is broken. They routinely turn down medical malpractice, personal injury and other liability cases because the costs of taking it into court are much higher than the recovery.

The Iowa Supreme Court recognized the need for changes and as part of its long term planning formed this task force.

Chief Justice Mark Cady said during his State of the Judiciary address in January these task force recommendations could serve as “blueprint for a new civil justice system in Iowa.”

The task force recommendations include:

A two tier justice system to streamline litigation including rules of evidence and discovery and reduce costs for cases with a lower dollar value. Each tier would have timelines for filings, trial dates and summary judgments and sanctions for those not meeting deadlines. One judge/one case – One judge would be assigned to a case and provide better management of the case, consistency with rulings in the case, help meet deadlines and reduce discovery costs. Expert witness fees – Consider limiting expert witness fees, which drive up the cost in medical malpractice and personal injury cases. Utilize more video and teleconferencing options to reduce costs and time. Business courts – This docket would handle only business cases or more complex civil cases. There were 1,229 contract or commercial cases filed in 2009 and about 10 percent of those involved “complex civil” litigation. Judges assigned would have special interest or expertise in business, cases with compensatory damages of $50,000 or more, and examples of cases would include technology licensing, intellectual property rights, breach of contract, fraud arising from business relationships and commercial real property disputes.

The Gazette will take a more in-depth look next week at the 120-page report, talking to task force members, judges and lawyers to give their insights and opinions on the recommendations and find out what is most needed in the court system.

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