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ON THE LAW

Measure Could Affect Access to Law Libraries

The facilities, run by counties statewide, are a free resource for legal research. New bill could force cutbacks in service.

June 14, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Instead of hiring an attorney, Gaile Rayfield wants to take her ex-husband to court on her own and win higher child-support payments for their 16-year-old daughter.

On a Friday afternoon, Rayfield, a single mother and full-time nursing student, walked into the Compton branch of the Los Angeles County Law Library and researched how to tackle the legal process.

Rayfield began by telling law librarian Helen Willis that she needed help filing for the modification in child-support payments. Willis pulled a blue paperback book off a shelf. She put the book, California Judicial Council Forms, in front of Rayfield and opened it to a page titled "Simplified Ways to Change Child, Spousal or Family Support."

"I can't afford an attorney. That's why I'm doing this," Rayfield said as she took notes in a black binder, listing the forms and procedures she needed. "This is the only place that's within my resources."

These days, county law libraries are seeing fewer attorneys, because many firms have extensive collections of their own. Most library patrons are members of the public, many of whom are planning to act as their own attorneys in legal matters, said Richard Iamele, director of the Los Angeles County Law Library. "I've seen people who have taken a case all the way to appeal by themselves," he said. "It can be done."

But a bill expected to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week has county law librarians worried that they may have to cut back on purchases and hours, or even close branch libraries.

When the bill was introduced in February by Assemblyman Mark Wyland (R-Escondido), it proposed that libraries housed in county-owned facilities pay rent for the space and cover operating costs including utilities, phones and janitorial services. County law libraries are funded largely through civil court filing fees.

Law librarians feared that the smaller county branches wouldn't be able to pick up the cost for their space in courthouses.

The main downtown Los Angeles library wouldn't be affected because the library's board of trustees owns the six-story building, which was constructed in 1953 with library funds. But some of its branches--at courthouses in Beverly Hills, Compton, Long Beach, Norwalk, Pasadena, Pomona, Santa Monica, Torrance and Van Nuys--would have been threatened.

After lobbying efforts by the Council of California County Law Librarians, the bill was amended to allow libraries to continue using space in county buildings without charge. However, the current bill seeks to give county boards of supervisors more oversight by providing the power to review each library's expenditures and reimbursement requests.

Law librarians worry that this may create "an adversarial relationship between individual county boards of supervisors and county law library boards of trustees," said Annette Heath, the council's president and director of the Kern County Law Library.

The civil court filing fees that support law libraries vary from county to county. In Los Angeles the fee is $14, the lowest in the state. Iamele, of the Los Angeles County Law Library, said he would like to see the fee increased, noting that the cost of books has skyrocketed in recent years.

To increase fees, library directors must win approval from their board of supervisors, often asking for increments of $2 to $3 at a time.

Duane Dichiara, Wyland's chief of staff, said asking libraries to justify their spending is meant only to be prudent budgetary management. In the past, libraries submitted funding requests and counties paid them from the filing fee fund without question, Dichiara said.

An 1891 state law requires every county to have a public law library. California's 58 such facilities aim to provide equal access to the law for all people, Iamele said.

The libraries vary in size and resources. Some have their own buildings, such as the sprawling main Los Angeles branch; others have just a small room in a courthouse.

Some are reference libraries, but in Los Angeles, patrons are allowed to borrow books.

Last fiscal year, filing fees garnered the Los Angeles library about $6.28 million, Iamele said, but the library spent about $6.3 million. Much of the difference came from parking and copying machine fees.

The Butte County Law Library, one of the state's smallest, operates on a $170,000 budget, with about $160,000 coming from a $26 filing fee, said library director John Zorbas.

"This is a poor community," he said. "What else do people have? They have the county law library."

Zorbas opposes Wyland's bill, saying it implies that libraries are not adequately managing their resources. He fears that the bill will allow the county to threaten to move the library from the courthouse, where it is housed in a 2,500-square-foot office.

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