Your Trial Date Is Not Always Your Trial Date

Two weeks ago I had a trial scheduled to begin on a Monday.

It was a jury trial that was set for a car accident trial to begin on an agreed date that had been selected 8 months earlier.  My client and his three witnesses — two of them experts — all cleared their schedules to make sure they were available.  I had blocked off the time on my calendar, and so did the two lawyers involved on the defense side.

The Friday before the trial was supposed to start, I received a call from the court’s assignment office.  We wouldn’t be able to begin our trial as scheduled because there was no judge available.  This put us on standby.  That meant that I could be called anytime before 1:30 p.m., and I would have an hour to get to court with my client and my witnesses, ready to begin the trial.  If I wasn’t called by 1:30, I was instructed to call back at 3:30 to see if we would be assigned the next morning.  I called my client and all of his witnesses and let them know of this development.  They were not exactly pleased.

Of course, when Monday came, I was not called before the deadline.

So, as instructed, I called back at 3:30.  I was told that we were not assigned for the next day, as there was still no judge available.  We would be on standby again until 12:00 p.m.  If we were not reached by noon, the case would be postponed and a new date selected.  After asking, I learned that it didn’t look good for us to be assigned the next day, and that there were other cases older than mine that were also on standby.  I called my client and his witnesses to let them know what was going on.  Unsurprisingly, they had not gotten any happier about this scheduling problem.

The next day, I sat by the phone until noon hoping we would be called.  Of course, we were not reached.  Again, I waited until 3:30 and called the assignment office again to find out about having the case reset.  They told me I would get a call the following week, because “the girl who does that is out on vacation until then.”  Again, I relayed all of this information to my client and the witnesses.  At this point, they were equal parts disappointed the case didn’t go forward and annoyed at how the scheduling was done.

Last week, I got a call from the court looking to clear dates on which the trial could be reset.  From a man.  I guess “the girl who does that” is still on vacation.  Now the case is tentatively rescheduled for 6 months from now.  I’m told that we will have a priority if the same thing happens again, but I hope I don’t have to find out.

Please don’t take this as “woe is me.”  I’ve been a lawyer for a while now, and this is not the first time something like this has happened to me.  I know it’s done that way to maximize the efficiency of the court so that they never have a courtroom sitting empty.  I’m aware that I am part of a system that does not really care about my convenience.  I understand why it is the way it is, and I am used to it.

But my client and his witnesses are not.  They think this system is completely insane.  When I told them what was going on, it struck me that two of them said basically the same thing: “Oh, I guess some judge decided to go on vacation, and they don’t care if we have to sit and wait.”  I can see why they may have thought that since August is a big vacation month.  I assured them that was probably not the case, that most likely what happened was that some trial went longer than expected, or someone had a sudden illness or family emergency.   I hope that’s true, but I don’t really know.  I am assuming the court would only put a case on standby for a good reason, and if there was at least some chance that it would be reached.

Now I have to tell my client and his witnesses that we are set for a new date and that I hope the same thing won’t happen again.  As I said, I’m part of the system and I am used to this sort of thing happening.  But for people who are not part of the system, this looks really bad.  From their perspective, they cleared their very busy schedules only to sit by the phone for two days waiting for a call that never came, without ever being given a reason why they were being inconvenienced that way.  Now they are concerned that this will go the same way the next time.  I can’t say that I blame them for being annoyed.  I can absolutely see why the status quo makes no sense at all to an outsider looking in.

I’m sure that the court and its staff do their best to make sure cases are tried on the dates they are set, and that they think the system they have is the best way to handle these kinds of problems under the circumstances.  I will say that if there is a better way, I hope somebody figures it out pretty soon because the current system really gives the litigants and the witnesses an unfavorable opinion of our court system.  And once that opinion has taken hold, it is very difficult to change.