Palm Beach County’s idling foreclosure cases are about to get a kick-start as judges begin setting trial dates for dawdling banks and stalling homeowners.

An administrative order issued Thursday by Palm Beach County Chief Judge Peter Blanc requires bank attorneys to identify all of their foreclosures filed before July 1, 2010, and outline the status of each case. For foreclosures pending 36 months or more, the court will schedule blocks of trial time, pushing both sides to present their case in what some fear is a return of the “rocket docket.”

About 9,500 _ 30 percent _ of Palm Beach County’s foreclosure cases are three years old or older, Blanc said.

“For cases to be sitting there that long, I think neither side is making an effort to move them,” Blanc said. “We had to do something to get these back before the court.”

A swifter trial could push banks that don’t want more foreclosures on their books to settle with homeowners, negotiating a loan modification, short sale or deed in lieu of foreclosure, some defense attorneys said.

But a speedy judiciary can also be a clumsy one, and they worry homeowners with legitimate defenses will be harmed if corners are cut.

“If the cases are undefended, they should go to trial and be disposed of quickly,” said Royal Palm Beach-based attorney Tom Ice. “But if you set 70 cases for trial in one morning, it’s prejudicial to homeowners defending their case because in five minutes you’re either not going to get a fair trial or it’s not going to happen that day.”

Despite a $4 million stipend awarded last year to Florida’s circuit courts to help clear a stubborn foreclosures backlog, there remain 371,119 cases pending statewide, just 6,588 fewer than when the money became available in July.

That’s because nearly as quickly as a case is cleared, new foreclosures are being filed. There were 105,020 cases disposed between July and December. In the same six-month period, 98,432 new cases hit the system.

Palm Beach County has 31,678 pending foreclosure cases, 1,300 fewer than in July.

Blanc said in December he was disappointed in the lack of progress being made processing cases and was looking at ways to move them more quickly.

Miami-Dade County judges began setting trial dates for lagging foreclosure cases in the fall. Attorneys complain the trials are cattle calls and could result in voided judgments if homeowners challenge that the cases were tried without proper orders. If a trial is forced when there are still unanswered pleadings it could be rolled back.

“There are legitimate hardships that should be considered, but I do think this will cause them to clean things up,” said suburban West Palm Beach homeowner Cathy Hogan, who is a member of the Somerset Homeowners Association.

She said neighborhoods suffering with blighted and abandoned homes that the banks have been slow to repossess could benefit from a faster foreclosure system.

“I would say this is more good than bad if the courts and judges are understanding,” she said.

There is a safeguard in Blanc’s order for homeowners. Requests for more time, to reschedule the trial, or to strike a trial date, will be heard by the chief judge or his designate “in an effort to promote consistence and improve the administration of justice.”

Malcolm Harrison, a Wellington-based foreclosure defense attorney, said a Palm Beach County judge told him that the court is hoping to eliminate about 6,000 cases filed before 2009 by the end of summer.

“The banks are actively filing new cases all the time so when you have these aging cases in the system, you are facing a situation where the courts are going to break down,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s office is handling about 150 cases filed before July 2010. He said Thursday’s order puts homeowners on notice that they should redouble efforts to reach an agreement with their banks.

“Because if you don’t, the courts are going to push these cases to trial and, honestly, the typical outcome of a trial is that a sale date is set and the home is sold,” Harrison said.

State estimates show 220,000 new foreclosures are expected to be filed during the fiscal year that began July 1. An additional 239,000 are estimated for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Florida’s courts will get a $5 million boost to help process foreclosures from the state’s share of the National Mortgage Settlement.

by Kimberly Miller