DEAR DATA DOG: In what role do most people appear in court?

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Judging by the number of available seats: as spectators. The National Center for State Courts' 1999 survey, "How the Public Views the State Courts" confirms this, finding that the greatest percentage of respondents - 40 percent - had attended court as observers ( This clearly argues for the sale of programs and scorecards at the door, as everyone knows you can't recognize the plaintiffs without a program. By contrast, 27.9 percent of respondents had been either a defendant or a plaintiff in civil or criminal court.

Despite the endless talk about this country's litigation explosion, only 13 percent of Americans have ever filed a lawsuit, according to a January 2000 Roper Starch survey ( Why so few? For one thing, 71 percent of adults polled felt lawsuits take too long to resolve. (Understandable, given that Judge Judy handles as many as three cases in 23 minutes.) Furthermore, the NCSC reported that 66 percent of those surveyed felt that when an individual sues a corporation, the court favors the corporation. Why bother?

The American Bar Association's "Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System" survey found that a civil proceeding was the most recent court experience for just 15 percent of respondents, with an additional 3 percent involved in small-claims court ( That's still well below the 32 percent who found themselves in traffic court, as well as the 22 percent who enjoyed some sort of criminal proceeding (well, maybe not enjoyed). The greatest number of respondents - 32 percent - reported that their last court appearance was over five years ago.

Some 46 percent of respondents had used a lawyer within the past five years, and of those, 75 percent were satisfied with the legal expertise they received. The survey doesn't state how many convicts they interviewed - if any. They'd probably be in the 11 percent who were "very dissatisfied."

There are many reasons people don't want to spend any time in court: 90 percent believe wealthy clients drag out the proceedings to wear down their opponents; 77 percent feel going to court is too expensive; and 72 percent think the system offers too many ways for convicted criminals to appeal. Further, 68 percent feel lawyers spend too much time finding technicalities to get criminals released - meaning that they should work more quickly, I suppose.

Then there's that pesky jury thing. When it comes to lawsuits, jurors don't trust Big Business, but they don't trust the Little Guy either. The 1998 National Law Journal/DecisionQuest Juror Outlook survey discovered that 78 percent of respondents believed corporations often attempted to cover up the harm they do - and 84 percent agreed that when individuals get hurt, they often blame others for their own carelessness. Perhaps it's no coincidence that most lawsuits are settled out of court: The 1992 Bureau of Justice Statistics' Survey of State Courts found only 3 percent of tort, contract, and real property lawsuits that the courts disposed of, were decided by trial (2 percent by a jury).

Of course, there's another way to get into court: Get together with a few thousand of your closest friends and file a class action lawsuit. On the other hand, a recent survey by Roper Starch for the Insurance Research Council found that 44 percent of respondents felt the number of class action suits was too high, with 41 percent stating that the awards in such cases are too large ( How they arrived at such informed conclusions is a mystery, given that just 17 percent of those polled in the ABA study could name the chief justice of the United States (William H. Rehnquist). Although 76 percent agreed class action suits give consumers leverage against large corporations, 73 percent felt the leverage meant windfalls for attorneys, and mostly wind for the individuals. Result? Seventy percent believe some sort of reform is needed (surprise)!

On a happier note, 80 percent of NCSC survey respondents feel the United States justice system is the best in the world, despite its flaws. (That's only natural - for many, the last big news story about a foreign justice system involved an American youth sentenced to a caning.)

Of course, there are always people who will do anything to get into court: Check out the litigation "Horror Stories" at the American Tort Reform Association's Web site ( hstories.flml). Frankly, the stories made me laugh so much, I fell off my chair and injured my arm...

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