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Bar News - November 16, 2012

Opinion: Survey: Courts Tilted to the Rich

More than 40 percent of Americans doubt the fairness of civil courts and an overwhelming majority believe the litigant with the most money usually wins in a civil suit.

These are some of the surprising and unsettling results of a new national poll on the civil justice system by the Chicago-based Defense Research Institute (DRI).

On the reassuring side, a strong majority of respondents supported jury service as a civic duty and said they preferred trial by jury to bench trials.

Only a small share of the respondents, 9 percent, indicated that they were very confident that the results in civil courts are "just and fair," while 16 percent expressed no confidence that the results are fair. Eighty-three percent say that the side with the most money to spend on lawyers usually wins. This holds true for all demographic groups: Democrats, Republicans, Independents, liberals, and conservatives. On the other hand, the 58 percent who expressed confidence in court decisions placed the civil courts far ahead of Congress, the presidency, and even the church in other recent confidence polls, according to DRI.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the majority of respondents freely admitted that, in certain instances, their personal biases could affect their decisions as jurors. For instance, 57-59 percent said they would be inclined as jurors to favor individuals in cases against an insurance, oil, or financial company. Fifty-two percent said that if they had a bad consumer experience with a litigant, it could influence their decision as a juror.

In an interesting and perhaps counterintuitive response, the poll found that 64 percent of respondents prefer jury trials to bench trials, even though 48 percent feel juries make decisions based on personal opinion, rather than facts and the law. Alternatively, 69 percent feel judges base their decisions on facts and the law, rather than personal opinion.

The poll also found that 75 percent of Americans see jury service as a civic duty, rather than a burden, and of those that had served, 81 percent said the experience was a positive one.

Immediate Past President of DRI, Matt Cairns of Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell in Concord, notes that this poll is the first major research effort of DRIís new Center for Law and Public Policy which, in addition to conducting objective research, will provide expertise to the courts and policymakers, and conduct public education on important civil judicial issues. The centerís goal is to conduct a similar poll each year to help identify trends on major issues affecting the civil justice system.

"While DRI is a defense-oriented organization, the poll results are equally relevant to our friends at the Association of Justice," Cairns said.

The DRI poll results are based on a telephone survey of 1,020 adults selected at random in August 2012. The poll was conducted for DRI by Langer Research Associates of New York.

For the full report of the national survey as well as downloadable graphs and charts, please visit DRIís Center for Law and Public Policy's website

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