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Residents skip long courthouse wait by hiring private judge

ORLANDO, Fla. – It can take a year or two for people to have a trial in Central Florida, but those who want to skip the line can hire a private judge to handle their case.

[WEB EXTRA: Law allowing private trials and more details ]

"My marketing motto is: 'How would you like your trial tomorrow?'" said Robert Evans, who worked as a judge in Orange County for more than 20 years before leaving public office. Now, he conducts private trials -- for paying customers -- at his Florida Private Trials practice.

"We do it in the privacy of conference rooms and in private settings, not in the open courtroom, where everyone and their brother is attending," Evans said.

His clients go to him not only for the speed, but also for the privacy.

"Say it's a divorce, where we're talking about what a business does and what it's worth. Competitors of that business can sit in and listen (in a public trial)," Evans said.

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Orange County Chief Judge Fred Lauten said a lack of state funding over the years has slowed down the legal system. Back in 2000, Florida ranked No. 4 in the nation for trial judge funding. Now, Florida ranks No. 24.

"We have not had an increase in judges for about nine or 10 years, and now we're the third most populous state in the United States," Lauten said. "So we've continued to grow as a state, but the number of judges has remained static for about a decade."

Evans watched Florida's population -- and the workload -- increase firsthand during his time on the bench.

"The judges right now are handling 100 percent more cases than they were eight years ago," Evans said.

He said he believes paying for a private judge to resolve disputes quickly could pay off in the long run.

"Quicker is cheaper. The longer a case lingers in the system, the more it costs them, and getting it through the system quicker actually saves them money," Evans said, adding that it also saves the state money.

"I think this is a way the government recognizes they can do more with less by allowing this alternative dispute resolution method -- and people like it," Evans said.

But what about the people who can't afford it?

"That's an issue, of course," Lauten said. "Private judging comes with a cost, and it's not done for free. So it's not a solution for moderate to low income individuals. Many of those people can't even afford an attorney, and so they're not going to be able to afford a private judge."

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Lauten asked for funding for two additional judges from the Legislature this year. It's not yet clear whether that request was granted. 

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