N.C. Bar Association president: Moving our courts forward

Published 8:28 pm Monday, April 6, 2015

By Catharine Arrowood

One of the founding principles of our state and country is fair and equal access to the courts without delay. This is becoming harder and harder in North Carolina. While our population has grown 18.5 percent since 2000, funding for the court system’s operating budget has been reduced 41.4 percent and its workforce cut by 10 percent over the last six years.

More people mean more divorces, child custody fights, debt collection actions, probates, criminal proceedings and appeals. Simply put, while our population has been increasing by double digits, court funding has been declining.

What does this mean to the average North Carolinian? The lack of funding and personnel means your court case will take longer and it puts pressure on district attorneys to offer plea bargains in criminal cases due to the backlog created by the lack of judges.

According to the National Center for State Courts, North Carolina’s courts are understaffed by more than 500 positions or almost 9 percent of the court’s workforce.

Court funding has dropped from 3 percent of our state budget to 2.2 percent. Many of our court personnel work two jobs to survive while others are working longer hours trying to fill the void created by the over 500 unfilled positions. In addition, our courts continue to lack the technology that our citizens expect and deserve. The electronic system that our law enforcement uses today effectively stops at the courthouse steps.

North Carolina Bar Association representatives met with Chief Justice Mark Martin and legislative leaders to discuss the challenges facing our court system. These conversations were very productive and there is an understanding that we must increase court funding in the next budget year. This additional investment will help fund the basic operations of the court system and can be used to hire additional court personnel to deal with our growing population.

Money alone will not fix everything. Chief Justice Martin is creating a commission to evaluate North Carolina’s judicial system and offer recommendations for improving the process. The North Carolina Bar Association is looking forward to participating and assisting the commission in developing recommendations.

While the commission studies ways to make our court system more efficient, we need to increase court funding now. This will enable the court system to address critical personnel and compensation needs, after which it can begin to address electronic filing and technology issues.

Moving our courts forward is good for our citizens, good for business and good for our economy.

Catharine Arrowood is president of the North Carolina Bar Association.