Cutbacks Still Felt Deeply In California's Civil Courts

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The case against Melissa Reyes' landlord was open and shut, her attorney promised.

For years, city officials documented the dismal conditions at her family's South San Francisco apartment unit -- a broken heater, leaky faucets, raw sewage pouring into the garage, rotting floors.

Most upsetting to Reyes: Her 3-year-old son slipped on the wet floor and broke his arm falling down the unit's steep staircase.

But when she and her husband got to court, a judge said he couldn't set a trial date for at least a year. Because of state budget cuts, San Mateo County has shuttered four courtrooms and limited civil trials to one or two per week for the entire county.

So the Reyes family settled the case, for less than they believe they could have received at trial.

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Their story is not unusual, say judges and lawyers around California.

California courts -- like most state-funded programs -- suffered deep budget reductions during the recession and have yet to fully recover. Since 2008, according to the Judicial Council of California, thousands of court staffers have lost jobs while 52 courthouses and more than 200 courtrooms have been shuttered. In some counties, residents must now make a long drive to a different city to simply pay a fine; in all, the council estimates that 2.1 million Californians have lost access to a courtroom in their community.

The improving economy is slowly allowing the state to pump more taxpayer dollars back into the trial court system, but court officials and lawyers say the deep cuts can still be felt -- particularly in civil courts.

It's also more expensive now to access court services: Fines and fees for court services were temporarily increased in 2012, and Gov. Jerry Brown wants to make those increases permanent in the state fiscal year that begins on July 1.

'Second-Class Citizens'

For the Reyes family, the reductions had a tangible impact -- they couldn't wait years for what they felt they were owed. The same month that they filed a civil lawsuit, Reyes, her husband and their two kids were forced out of their two-bedroom apartment by city inspectors, who said it wasn't habitable. For several months, the family had to stay in homeless shelters.

And they had mounting expenses. The family lost most of its possessions in flooding and left others behind when they were suddenly forced out of the unit; their one car needed repairs; and when they finally found an apartment to move into, the rent was triple what they had been paying.

Reyes, a See's Candies manager and her husband, Miguel Reyes, a driver for disabled adults, said it was a stretch.

"The judge was telling us, you know, it could take up to five years, like it could be a year, it could be two years, it could just get extended, extended, extended, there are only so many judges ... and he was trying to convince me to settle," she said.

"It felt like we were just second-class citizens -- like it didn't matter ... just settle it for whatever they are giving you."

So the Reyes family did just that.

Lawyers say these types of situations -- where plaintiffs feel compelled to cut a deal even if they have a strong case -- are playing out all over California. Compounding matters, many court-sponsored mediation services have been cut back, forcing both sides to pay two or three times as much to simply get to a settlement agreement.

The Civil Court Ripple Effect

The delays extend to other areas of the law as well. Family court budgets have been slashed, making it difficult for parents to quickly secure child support payment orders or sort out custody issues, said Martin Hoshino, administrative director of the Judicial Council. He said he's also heard stories of restraining orders being delayed.

"Some of the most pronounced effects are in the area of family (law) -- if you talk to any of the courts, they will tell you this is a real problem, because some of these are issues of reunification of families, or they are adoptions, or these are decisions that are being delayed that are aimed at helping some of the more vulnerable parts of our populations," Hoshino said. "And that has cause for great concern among a lot of the judicial officials or court administrators that I speak to in terms of what are the real impacts of saying that a courtroom or courthouse is closed and really unavailable."

For others, the closures have created physical barriers to access, Hoshino said: There are long lines, shorter hours and longer distances between courts.

"Not everybody has the means to take that kind of time off -- they may not even have the transportation means," he said.

And the constant pushing back of trial dates makes it difficult for small law firms, said Reyes' lawyer, Joe Tobener.

He said he will no longer take cases in San Mateo County.

"For a small firm like ours," he said, "a  predictable stream of income is everything -- we can’t hire. And no one is gonna cry for the trial attorneys but, at the same time, we hire a lot of people and we use a lot of resources: Process servers, paralegals, deposition companies. It has a broader economic impact if lawyers aren't able to get access to the courtroom."

The impacts are even more devastating for clients, Tobener said.

"It really limits access to justice because plaintiffs need to be able to bring their case to trial -- the trial date is everything," he said. "If a defense attorney can delay and delay and delay, they certainly will. And it will drive up the cost of the litigation."

'Discouraging' Delays

Judges are frustrated as well.

Carolyn Kuhl, Los Angeles Superior Court's presiding judge, said L.A. made 10 percent across-the-board cuts to court services in 2012, but it wasn't enough. So the next year, they made further cuts. In all, 79 courtrooms were shuttered, limiting where people can contest traffic tickets or adjudicate small claims cases. The court has also cut mediation services and eliminated court reporters in civil cases.

She said L.A. has tried to mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable --  children -- by keeping as many resources as possible in family and dependency courts.

"So civil cases are essentially what's left," she said. "There has never been this kind of pressure on the courts in my time of practice, which stretches back into the 1970s."

Kuhl said the setbacks are especially disheartening because she and others have worked for decades to shorten the amount of time it takes to resolve civil cases.

"And to see those gains essentially be lost -- as we now have delays such that the number of cases pending over two years has tripled -- is very discouraging," she said.

The governor proposed adding around $180 million to the courts' budget next fiscal year, an investment that Hoshino said the council is eager to see.

But Californians shouldn't expect a quick fix after years of cuts, he warned: Fines and fee revenues have decreased in recent years, trial courts will still have smaller budgets than they did before the recession, and a new formula -- aimed at lining up court funding more accurately with the actual services provided by each county -- will mean less money next year for 17 counties, including San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, San Diego and Marin.

In the long term, Hoshino said, "the net effect will be the improvement of services and the uniformity of services for all Californians."

But for now, "you will still hear that some courts still have shortened hours, while some are lengthening their hours. A courtroom still may get closed in one county while you are hearing courtrooms opening in another county -- you will see some of that unevenness," he said.

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And according to lawyers up and down California, that means justice will still be hard to come by for some citizens.