Large numbers of Americans doubt the fairness of civil courts and a majority – sometimes substantial majorities -- admit that personal biases could affect their decisions as jurors. These are some of the surprising and unsettling results of a new national poll on the civil justice system by DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar. The poll is the first major research effort of DRI’s 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 poll, conducted for DRI by Langer Research Associates of New York, was a telephone survey based upon a national, random, scientific sample of adults.
In terms of confidence in the civil courts, only 9 percent of respondents 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 were fair. Eighty-three percent say that the side with the most money for 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 places the civil courts far ahead of Congress, the presidency, and even the church in other recent confidence polls.
“The research, of course, begs further inquiry. There is sometimes a gap between perception and reality. But that a large section of the public even perceives the courts to be unfair is troubling,” said John Kouris, DRI executive director.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that majorities of respondents freely admitted that, in certain instances, their personal biases could affect their decisions as jurors. For instance, 57-59 percent say 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.
“This data indicates that we have some public education work to do,” said Marc Williams, the chair of the new Center. “No matter how much affinity one might have with one side or another, a basic premise of justice is that cases will be tried before an unbiased judge and jury who then make their decisions based upon the law and the facts presented.”
Another subject area of the poll, class action law suits, produced other interesting information. An astounding four out of ten Americans have been invited to participate in a class action suit. Fifteen percent actually participated in one, and most do not appear to be doing it for the money. Of the 70 percent receiving a financial award, 73 percent termed it insignificant. Their motivation might lie in the fact that 65 percent thought class action suits made corporations more responsible.
“Much of this research is unique and necessary in determining where reforms may be needed,” said Henry Sneath, president of DRI. “The DRI Center for Law and Public Policy adds a distinct voice to the conversation and, indeed, with this and subsequent research, will hopefully initiate lively national conversation on the needs of the civil judiciary.”
In an interesting and perhaps counterintuitive response, the poll found that 64 percent prefer jury trials to bench trials even though 48 percent feel juries make decisions based upon personal opinion rather than facts and the law. Alternatively, 69 percent feel that judges base their decisions on facts and the law rather than personal opinion.
In an encouraging response, 75 percent of Americans see jury service as a civic duty rather than a burden, and of those that had served, 81 percent say the experience was a positive one.
The above findings come from an independent, nonpartisan, national telephone survey conducted in August 2012 among a random scientific sample of adults. It employed rigorous methodology and balanced question wording to assess public attitudes on issues in civil law. It was conducted by Langer Research Associates, New York. Gary Langer is the former head of polling for ABC News and subscribes to the Code of Professional Ethics and Practices of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the Principles of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.