Celebrating our Civil Justice System
By Mark L. Thomsen
For the past 50 years, May 1st has been celebrated as Law Day. While the 51st celebration of Law Day is unlikely to result in a large celebration or a day off work, it does provide a good opportunity to take stock of the current state of our legal system.
A recent publication entitled Civil Justice in Wisconsin – A Fact Book, authored by two members of the University of Wisconsin Law School, does an excellent job of looking at the civil justice system in Wisconsin. Most readers would be a bit surprised by what it finds.
The authors, Professors Marc Galanter and Susan Steingass, point out that civil case filings have been more or less constant for the last dozen years. Wisconsin continued to rank well below the national average in cases, ranking 31st among the 50 states in cases filed per 100,000 residents. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Wisconsinites turn to the courts at a lower rate compared to neighboring states and the U.S. as a whole.
A look into exactly what kinds of cases are being pursued reveals even more surprises. Nearly two-thirds of the civil cases in Wisconsin are small claims cases, usually to collect debt. The second largest group is in the area of family law (divorce, support/maintenance, paternity, domestic abuse…), which makes up nearly 15% of the cases.
Equally interesting is that the fastest growing areas of civil cases are in the area of contract law, which are primarily suits for money judgments. These increased almost 200 percent since 1996. These are mainly suits by businesses suing businesses or individuals to collect debts and include things like mortgage foreclosures. The numbers do not take into account the surge in recent foreclosures.
Tort filings, the kinds of cases that seem to be complained about as clogging up our court system, are declining. Tort cases encompass issues like medical malpractice, product liability, and personal injury. When compared to other states, Wisconsin’s rate of tort claims per 100,000 is relatively low. According to the National Center for State Courts, in 2005 Wisconsin’s rate was tied for 11th lowest of the 32 states surveyed. Wisconsin’s rate was 26 percent below the median rates of the states surveyed.
In Wisconsin, it is less likely that you will even run into a lawyer than most other states, as we have about one-third fewer lawyers per capita than the rest of the country.
So next time someone claims that the courts are jammed with tort cases, you will know that is just not the case. The book found no evidence that our civil justice system is detrimental to our business environment, or that Wisconsin businesses place a high priority on legal reform.
As we mark Law Day, we can take pride in Wisconsin’s system of justice and celebrate its role in protecting the right of businesses and citizens to resolve disputes in a fair and equitable manner.
Mark L. Thomsen is the President of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, the state’s largest voluntary bar organization defending the civil justice system.