Crime & Courts

Toal: Plans under way to make court system more efficient

MYRTLE BEACH -- Plans are under way to re-engineer the South Carolina judicial system to make it more efficient in these tough economic times, Chief Justice Jean Toal told members of the state bar association today during its annual convention being held in Myrtle Beach.

A hiring freeze, cuts to monthly office allowances and travel reimbursement for judges along with new internet-based case management systems are some of the “re-engineering” taking place in the judicial system, she said. She also described a budget shortfall of about $10 million because of state cuts.

“It is a very, very desperate situation,” Toal said. “I hope all of this will squeeze more efficiency out of the system.”

The new docket and case management system, which is operating in Horry and Georgetown counties, should help alleviate backlogs and move cases through the system quicker by putting deadlines and benchmarks on every case, Toal said.

More than 80 percent of the state should be using the system by the end of 2009.

Circuit Judge Cliff Newman has also agreed to oversee a backlog of construction cases in Beaufort, Charleston and Horry counties as part of a pilot project to move them through the system, she said.

Toal also addressed the issue of funding in indigent defense, which recently became a hot button among private defense attorneys because the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense decision to suspend payment of legal fees to court-appointed defense attorneys in noncapital cases.

“I know there is a lot of angst out there over this. We've made a lot of strides in the public defender system in the state, but the problem is we face these budget cuts,” Toal said. “We're looking at everything for solutions.”

A moratorium was temporarily lifted until February, but Toal warned funding is not available to continue paying those private attorneys.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who spoke following Toal during today's luncheon, commended her for reducing costs in the system while upgrading the use of technology.

“As long as I'm your Senator I'm going to help you get some money. You are a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” Graham said. “I think it's one of the strongest institutions South Carolina has and we're going to keep it that way.”

Several hundred of the bar association's more than 13,000 members attended the convention that ends Sunday.