Yet another side effect of the struggling economy is the burden it puts on Maine’s court system.

The number of general civil cases in the state’s court system has increased nearly 50 percent during the last five years, according to statistics from the Maine Judicial Branch. Foreclosures and collection cases are the main reason for the surge.

While such an increase in cases could cause overcrowding by itself, it comes at a time when dozens of clerks and other courthouse positions have been trimmed.

The result? It takes much longer for the system to dole out justice than it once did.

Matt Goldfarb, a veteran lawyer at Greenberg & Greenberg who handles collection cases, said it used to take about seven months to get a judgment in a civil case. Now, it often takes more than a year.

“That’s the impact,” said Mary Ann Lynch, the state’s director of court information. “We’ve had the same number of judges the last few years and we actually have fewer clerks. When there’s increased filings with fewer people, it increases the time it takes to resolve each case.”

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2006, about 13,500 lawsuits were filed in the state’s court system. In 2009 and 2010, the number exceeded 20,000, an increase of more than 48 percent.

Several of the state’s 13 District Court jurisdictions have had even larger increases. In 2006, Lewiston District Court handled 900 civil cases. In 2010, it handled more than 2,000, an increase of 122 percent.

The numbers appear directly linked to the struggling economy. Foreclosures in Maine reached an all-time high in 2009. And money judgments (up 57.4 percent) and small-claims cases (up 22.8 percent) have skyrocketed. In total, eight districts have seen 80 percent increases in civil filings. By comparison, Portland is up a meager 58.5 percent.

Even if the economy improves, the increase in cases could have long-term effects on the court’s ability to deliver justice as quickly as it once did.

The building caseload is creating a backlog in many districts, experts said. Last year, Maine’s court system took on 800 more new civil filings than it cleared. It was the second straight year the state’s backlog grew.

If that trend continues, those excess filings could slow down the system for years, even after the economy improves and the caseload reverts back to 2006 levels.

The delay in justice for civil cases isn’t related only to the increased filings and short-handed staffs. Some of it has to do with priorities.

The state — and the nation’s judicial system in general — has made criminal, family and “liberty” cases top priority. All three get preference over civil and financial matters.

So when a paternity-rights issue comes up, or a case involving involuntary commitment to a hospital, it often moves ahead of civil filings, experts said. Involuntary commitments are considered liberty issues because someone’s freedom is at stake. Like civil filings, mental health filings have increased significantly.

“There’s a criticality to many cases not given to civil trials,” said Goldfarb, who has been practicing law for 45 years. “And it’s completely understandable. Our courts have always said people’s safety must come first.”

There iss at least some hope on the horizon. The state Legislature recently approved funding to fill 30 frozen clerk positions, which should help speed up clearance rates for civil cases, Lynch said. Many of those frozen positions are in District Court, where the backlogs are building.

If and when the economy improves, it should limit some of the civil filings related to foreclosures and creditors.

“We hope that’s soon,” Lynch said of the economy. “But in reality, no one has a crystal ball when that will be.”

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