15 January 2009

Trial Practices Still Rare For Colorado Lawyers

As I previously noted, a very small percentage of Colorado lawyers handle a very large percentage of trials in which lawyers are used at all in Colorado. This continues to be true in light of the 2008 annual report of the Colorado judicial branch.

The high volume, predominantly government employed criminal bar handles more than 98% of county court jury trials, and about 80% of district court jury trials (where more serious cases such as felonies and civil disputes over $15,000 are handled). In all, more than 90% of jurors called to serve in Colorado's state courts serve on criminal or quasi-criminal (e.g. traffic, juvenile delinquency, and parental rights termination) cases.

About two-thirds of non-jury cases in county court are also handled by the criminal bar, while more than half of the remaining cases are small claims court cases handled without lawyers (with less than $7,500 in controversy). About 98% of civil cases other than small claims court cases in county court which go to trial (1,374) produce a bench trial rather than a jury trial -- typically for less than a full day.

There are 19 civil trial per year in county court (jurisdiction up to $15,000 in controvery) and 246 civil jury trials in district court (general jurisdiction) each year in Colorado. Personal injury case make up a majority (at least) of civil jury cases in Colorado. There are 266 bench trials in Colorado district courts each year in civil cases.

Most judicial decision making based upon evidence in Colorado District Courts (and the Denver Probate Court) comes in evidentiary hearings not classified as trials. There are about 12,988 final domestic relations hearings, 2,022 guardianship and/or conservativeship hearings, about 178 will, trust and formal probate hearings (only 7 of which are will contests), and about 134 mental health case hearings in Colorado each year. Many of these cases are only nominally contested, however.

The courtroom part of American criminal procedure hasn't changed much for several decades, and is remarkably inexpensive. It wouldn't be unusual for the combined costs of the prosecutor's office, the public defender's office and the court system (but excluding police investigative costs) in a prosecuted felony to be below $200 each, on average, in a typical county. A significant percentage of the total costs for all involved is in capital cases. In many cases, much of the process is oral, and many of the motions that are filed are heavily form driven. As I noted before:

It is a fair guess that the vast majority of criminal cases in Colorado, probably 80% of jury trials and 30% of bench trials [excluding hearings], at least, are handled by roughly 1,000-1,400 criminal lawyers who make up about 5-7% or less (the 20,000 number above is probably an underestimate) of the lawyers licensed to practice in Colorado.

The county court civil process, which mostly handles small claims where lawyers aren't involved, and collection and evictions cases brought en masse by lawyers specialized in that practice, is also quite quick and efficient, mostly because in a large percentage of cases defendants either fail to appear or settle on the spot in the courtroom. A few hundred more lawyers handle the bulk of the county court civil case load.

Non-criminal cases in district court, in contrast tend to be slow and very expensive, despite the fact that the stakes are often lower than they are in felony criminal cases. The process is somewhat streamlined in domestic cases, but in other civil cases, the rules contemplated a civil jury trial, even if this is highly unlikely.

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