On March 27, 2017, the Commercial Division of the New York Supreme Courts updated its rule on trial length, giving judges the express authorization to impose time limits, at their discretion, on different phases of trial. The goal of this amendment, first proposed by the Commercial Division Advisory Council in October 2016, is simple: to promote shorter, more efficient trials.
Currently, Rule 26 of Section 202.70(g) of the Uniform Civil Rules for the Supreme Court and the County Court calls for counsel to furnish the court with a “realistic estimate of the length of trial” at least ten days prior to trial. The amended rule keeps this language intact, but also gives the court discretion to ask counsel for even more detailed estimates regarding the number of hours that will be spent on witness examinations or argument. Based on these estimates, the court may then limit the total number of hours each side is allotted for the different phases of trial. The Advisory Council noted in its proposal that this discretionary rule was in agreement with long-standing case precedent and New York statutory provisions, like CPLR § 4011, that give judges the flexibility to set trial limits.
The rule amendment was supported by the local bar. In a memo endorsing the amendment, the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association agreed that pre-determined time limits would promote shorter, more efficient trials. The NYSBA Section recognized several benefits of the amended rule, including: (1) allowing the court to better plan and control its docket; (2) encouraging counsel to focus their theories of the case well in advance of trial; (3) minimizing repetition before the jury, thus mitigating unnecessary costs; and (4) improving jurors’ ability to focus by streamlining counsels’ presentations, while facilitating the selection of a jury with a better understanding of the length of the trial.
Importantly, under the amended rule, the court may also extend the number of trial hours beyond the initial limit “as justice may require.” Thus, parties are not necessarily constrained by the initial time limits, as the judge retains the flexibility to grant additional time as needed, in order to adapt to the circumstances of a particular trial. The NYSBA Section observed that this may result in an imbalance between the parties because, while defendants and plaintiffs alike receive the benefit of these extensions, there may be times where defense counsel would have preferred additional time earlier in the case—such as during cross-examination of plaintiff’s witnesses. On balance, however, the NYSBA Section believed the benefits of the amended rule outweighed these concerns.
The amended Rule 26 is set to take effect July 1, 2017.