California Courts’ Budget Woes Will Be Disasterous For Citizens

The California courts are broke. The old saying “justice delayed is justice denied” is true and the cuts will affect divorce, child custody, child support, and personal injury, contract disputes, and employment law claims the most.  Los Angeles and San Francisco and the other large counties are the ones that are hardest hit. The Judicial Council, the court’s governing body, which consists primarily of judges and court officials appointed by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, approved cuts of $350 million from a statewide court budget of $1.5 billion.  The cuts stem from decisions by the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to raid court construction funds and chop the court’s operational funds to close the state budget deficit. The courts have seen more than a 30% reduction in state general funds over the last three years.

San Francisco County Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein said her court has sent layoff notices to 41% of staff and plans to close 25 of 63 courtrooms. Until this year San Francisco had a adopted a head in the sand approach to the budget shortfall. It utilized furlough days and made no hard choices. In contrast the Los Angeles County court under former Presiding Judge Tim McCoy has for the past couple of years refrained from filling positions vacated by employees who retired or left of their own volition. Judge McCoy created dark days where certain civil court were closed one day a week. Almost all the Los Angeles County judges involved volunteered to work without pay or staff on those days. Last year, 329 employees were laid off and more positions were left unfilled. The present Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon told the LA Times on July 20th that the court was striving to reduce costs methodically, but “the sorts of dramatic cutbacks that other California courts are implementing may be felt here in Los Angeles as well.”

Why Should You Care? Divorces, traffic tickets, civil lawsuits all face monstrous delays in the coming years. Imagine being in the middle of a marital dissolution proceeding that has been going on for six months and being told that even though you’re ready for trial the earliest available date is 10 months away? Consider having to wait up to five years for your day in court on a civil case such as a lawsuit against the contractor that made a hash of your bathroom remodel or a personal injury suit?

Access to justice is critical to our society.  Obviously due to the state’s economic situation all government services will be trimmed. But cutting $350 million from the budget of the state courts will prove to be a disaster for the people of California. The court’s financial woes are a boon for private litigation (commonly known as arbitration) where litigants hire an arbitrator and pay him or her to decide their dispute.

I am not a fan and think arbitration should be avoided in most instances. One reason is that arbitration is incredibly expensive. It costs a relatively modest $395 to file a complaint in any California state court. Filing an arbitration is often a function of the value of the case and can cost thousands of dollars. The arbitrator’s time is also expensive–$570 per hour is the low end and $850 is common (and it can be more…a lot more). The expense of arbitration can favor the litigant with the deepest pocket.  Another problem with arbitration is that for the most part the arbitrator’s decision is the final word. There can be no appeal to a higher court. This is true even if a litigant can show the arbitrator’s decision was clearly wrong according to the law!

What Can You Do? I’d be lying if I said you could do much. But you should be cognizant of the dire financial situation of the courts and it should play an important factor in your decision on whether to file a lawsuit over a civil dispute. Despite my misgivings about arbitration I engage in it regularly and their are steps business persons can take to minimize the expense of arbitration and to attempt to include the costs in the arbitration award to the party that wins.

In the context of divorce and child custody and support issues the best approach is to attempt to resolve the property division and custody/support issues without fighting and then use attorneys to present the agreement to the courts as a mutually agreed upon stipulated judgment of dissolution. That is not always possible, so it’s important to have a divorce lawyer familiar with the judges were your case is located. The reason is some family law judges move things along faster than others despite the budget woes, and an attorney familiar with the court will know the history of your judge.

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