BUFFALO, N.Y. (Legal Newsline) – The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York recently tried an innovative approach to expediting cases and taking on a backlog of litigation.
A Jan. 12 post on the federal United States courts' website credits Chief Judge Frank P. Gerachi Jr. with a strategy last used in 1995 to use mediation in a new way to try to clear the docket.
The "settlement week" is a kind of periodic clearinghouse event that brings to mind the historic Year of Jubilee noted in the Old Testament of the Bible as a creative way to solve an intractable legal problem.
Just as the ancient Israelites used one year out of 50 to resolve their debts, the Western District Court of New York is using one week out of 52 to put more tools into the hands of various parties who need to have disputes resolved.
"Our district is one of the busiest in the county," Judge Elizabeth Wolford told Legal Newsline Feb. 6. "We have a considerable caseload."
In fact, she said, the practice of triaging various types of cases leads some not to get the attention they may deserve.
"It is a problem, there's no question about it," Wolford said, attributing part of the issue to judicial vacancies. "The parties need to get their disputes heard and resolved - we need to think of innovative ways to do this, and one way is the settlement week."
Settlement week, Wolford said, lasted longer than a week, but there are indications that it was effective in resolving some cases, although she said it will take another month to really figure out the more specific effects of the project.
The sessions were held at the Buffalo courthouse beginning Oct. 30, and at Rochester courthouse starting Nov. 13.
In general, Wolford said she has seen mediation play a key role in her career in private practice until 2013 when she came on the bench.
"I think it can be very helpful," Wolford said of mediation. "The critical thing is the timing of it."
Wolford explained that many kinds of cases are automatically sent to mediation in the district, but in most of these cases, the parties are paying for the mediation. In settlement week, she said, the court system actually pays the mediators. Otherwise, she said, some parties may have had to pay settlement fees twice.
"We didn't think that was fair," Wolford said
As for the results, Wolford takes a wait-and-see approach.
"The jury is still out in terms of how successful the settlement week was," she said.
Diversifying the tools with which local courts handle backlogs can provide the key to a smoother legal process for new litigants and those who are waiting on old cases.