Privatizing Jury Trials

By Jones, Leigh | THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Privatizing Jury Trials


Jones, Leigh, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Buying a day in court may be the answer for those exasperated with the expense and sluggish pace of the legal system.

Mounting costs, delays and a general disillusionment in so-called justice are prompting some individuals to seek refuge in private jury trials -- a rent-a-court of sorts.

"It's the coming thing," predicts Fred Minton, president of Courtroom Technologies, Inc., whose Dallas-based company conducts private jury trials and provides jury consulting services.

In essence, the trial is an extension of traditional arbitration, which utilizes a neutral third party to resolve conflicts. In a private jury trial, a panel of paid jurors sits as fact finders, concluding disputes in a fraction of the time.

But the scheme is not without controversy.

John Rothman, owner of Oklahoma Mediation and Arbitration Services notes that these proceedings may create a "have and have not" situation.

"There's the issue of class stratification to private justice," Rothman holds.

The mediator says private jury trials may result in speedier justice for those who are willing to pay the price, while the masses' cases languish in public courts.

Such concerns are unfounded, says Retired Judge James Piatt of Pomona, Calif.'s Inland Valley Arbitration and Mediation Services, or IVAMS.

"It's really a poor man's trial," Piatt asserts.

IVAMS is a for-profit company founded in 1993 by Piatt and Sam Cianchetti, both retired California superior court judges.

Piatt argues that with a private jury trial, the parties end up paying a small percentage of traditional costs because the process is faster. He says the elimination of pre-trial delays creates the biggest savings.

"You could have 20 appearances by the time an attorney actually gets to trial in a public court," Piatt says.

The retired judge asserts overcrowded court dockets often lead to trial delays, though witnesses still must be paid and attorneys must prepare for continually rescheduled hearings.

"With IVAMS, you can be done in 60 days," Piatt maintains.

Plaintiffs attorney Robert Coleman, who practices in the Los Angeles area, is a firm believer in the arrangement.

"It's like a business appointment," Coleman says. "You don't have a guarantee of a start time anywhere else."

It's crucial to these proceedings, holds Coleman, that the "court" follows the jurisdiction's rules of procedure and evidence, including peremptory challenges in voir dire. And unless the parties agree to be bound by the outcome up front, they should be afforded full appellate process.

Though Coleman has been on the winning side -- receiving a $64,000 judgment for his client in a slip-and-fall case -- he's also experienced the agony of defeat in a private jury trial. …

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