Are Appeals Courts Showing More Mercy for Procedural Errors?
The legal tenet that courts should not place strict interpretations of procedural rules ahead of justice is not a new one.
The state Supreme Court ruled in the 1972 case Budget Laundry v. Munter that courts must bear in mind that "lawsuits are more than numbers or punches in computer cards."
"Individual cases are, of course, of great importance to the litigants involved, and courts must not overreach in their zeal to move cases to such an extent as to allow for no deviations from strict and literal adherence to policies justifiably laid down to improve the condition of the courts," the Budget Laundry court said.
In 1979, the high court held in Dublin Sportswear v. Charlett that "the quality of justice must not be subordinated to arbitrary insistence upon compliance with procedural rules."
But Pennsylvania attorneys said they believe increasingly busy courts often attempt to lighten their caseloads by looking for procedural defects to weed out cases.
McBride said she does think heavy caseloads are a contributing factor to some courts' less lenient attitudes toward procedural mistakes, but she conceded that procedural rules are necessary to keep the courts running smoothly.
"I think there's a lot of utility in holding people to the rules," McBride said. "I think we need to do that for efficiency's sake."
John J. Hare, chair of the appellate advocacy and post-trial practice group of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia, said in an email that appellate review of procedural dismissals tends to be "fact-sensitive and case-specific."
"Our appellate courts tend to review procedural dismissals closely because, in general, they don't want litigants to lose their day in court based on what may be seen as technicalities," Hare said. "However, in appropriate cases, and especially where a party has no legitimate excuse for violating a well-settled rule, the appellate courts certainly do affirm procedural dismissals, even if it means putting a litigant out of court in a significant case."
Still, McBride said there needs to be more guidance as to when courts will be willing to overlook procedural defects and when they won't.