Reform 'rocket docket'

Our view : Courts, hospitals should strive for improvements in resolving debt collection cases

January 27, 2009

Thousands of Marylanders who are sued over unpaid bills show up in court without a lawyer. Many of them try to negotiate the legal system on their own and end up agreeing to settlements that may not be in their best interest. The system may help resolve small-claims cases faster, but it isn't always fair or just. Officials of the District Court of Maryland have rightly recognized that and are trying to do something about it.

The problems surrounding these debt collection cases were documented by a University of Maryland study last fall and a Baltimore Sun investigative series that focused on hospitals' tactics to reclaim unpaid bills, including for treatment of poor people for which they were reimbursed by the state. The newspaper, as well as the UM study, highlighted what happens to defendants whose cases end up on a special docket in District Court in Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

This so-called rocket docket has functioned as a settlement conference in which attorneys for hospitals, credit card companies and others try to resolve matters without going to court. The docket has offered few or no safeguards for defendants and carried the imprimatur of the judicial system; some of that is to change in two weeks.

Judge Ben C. Clyburn, the head of Maryland's district courts, has realized that improvements need to be made. He would like to establish court self-help centers featuring up-to-date technology, paralegals and a bank of paid lawyers to educate defendants on their rights and help them navigate the legal system. A similar program involving family law matters exists in Maryland trial courts.

Many lawsuits over unpaid hospital bills begin in District Court. As The Sun's series showed, Maryland hospitals could help reduce those filings by being more selective and judicious about the patients they sue and the costs they try to recover. A study on the newspaper's findings, as ordered by Gov. Martin O'Malley, should set the parameters for change; anything less would be a disservice to the public.

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