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Budget cuts force California courts to delay trials, ax services

The courts have lost about 65% of their state general fund support in the last five years, a new study says, and the effect of the cuts is growing.

April 09, 2013|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

California courts, reeling from years of state budget cuts, are delaying hearings and trials, allowing records to sit unprocessed for months and slashing services at public windows, a judge's committee has reported.

The report by the Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee was based on a survey of all presiding judges and prepared for the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the courts. All but 10 of the state's counties responded to the survey.

The survey represented the most in-depth look yet of how California courts are faring with less money and suggested that the effect of the cuts is growing. California's courts have lost about 65% of their general fund support from the state during the last five years, and Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget does not restore any of the lost revenue. Presiding judges told the committee that the loss of revenue has affected everything from small claims to child custody disputes.

In San Francisco, paying a traffic ticket can now take up to four hours, and filing a lawsuit can consume nearly three hours, the report said. In Sacramento, window services have been slashed by more than 75%, prompting fights in lines, according to the committee.

Getting a trial in a traffic matter in San Diego requires at least a five-month wait, the survey found, and court closures have forced some San Bernardino residents to drive up to 175 miles one way to attend to a legal matter. Record-filing has slowed across many counties and created backlogs, the report said.

At least 53 courthouses have closed, and eight more are slated to shut their doors in Los Angeles County. Courts in 20 counties are closed for at least one day a month, according to the report.

The waiting time for mediation in child custody disputes has risen in at least 19 counties. In Stanislaus County, parents have to wait up to 17 weeks for a mediator, the report said. Counties also have cut the time provided for small claims disputes or eliminated hearings altogether.

Eleven counties told the committee they no longer are able to process domestic violence restraining orders the same day they are filed, and 38 counties have reduced self-help services for litigants without lawyers.

"Delay is pernicious," an unnamed Los Angeles court official said in the report. "It takes hold incrementally. Only after months or years of waiting will one litigant at a time realize how the system has failed."

An Inyo County court official said the court was "providing services based upon the tyranny of the urgent."

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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