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WASHINGTON (AP) — The record-setting pace of new personal bankruptcies continued this year, with their number rising 7.4 percent in the 12 months ended March 31, according to data released Thursday.

The upward trend had been expected to continue this year in the sluggish economy and as effects still linger from the consumer spending binge of the 1990s.

"There is still a big slug of individuals with problem debt still working their way through the (bankruptcy court) system," said Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a group of bankruptcy judges, lawyers and experts.

As is normally the case, most bankruptcy filings were by individuals.

The data compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts show that new bankruptcy filings by individuals totaled 1,573,720 in the 12-month period — a new record — up from 1,464,961 in the 12 months ending March 31, 2002.

While personal bankruptcy filings and total filings rose, the number of new business bankruptcies actually fell by 5.8 percent, to 37,548 from 39,845.

Total bankruptcy filings during the period rose 7.1 percent, to 1,611,268 from 1,504,806.

For the first three months of this year, total filings jumped to 412,968 from 379,012 in the January-March quarter of 2002.

Consumer debt has reached record levels in recent years. But Federal Reserve data showed that consumers became more cautious users of credit last year, expanding their borrowing at the slowest pace in a decade. The rise in credit card and other revolving debt was the smallest increase since the Fed began keeping records in 1968.

Consumer borrowing rose by just 3.3 percent in 2002, a marked slowdown from the 6.9 percent increase posted in 2001.

The House and Senate last year approved legislation to overhaul bankruptcy laws to make it harder for people to erase debts in bankruptcy court, and President Bush signaled he would sign it. Sharp partisan differences over abortion, however, doomed a House-Senate compromise in November's lame-duck Congress. A similar bill overwhelmingly cleared the House in March, but the legislation faces less favorable prospects in the Senate. Banks and credit card companies have been pushing the legislation since 1997.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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