CALIFORNIA COURTS FACE INCREASING DELAYS
This economic recession has been forcing budget cuts and business closings everywhere. One place that these cuts are being felt especially hard is in the legal justice system where access to the Courts is getting harder then ever.
For several years, the Sacramento Courts, along with the rest of the State, have been struggling to provide Judges and Courtrooms to hear the vast aray of legal disputes that arise. Staff cutbacks and systems to streamline processing have become common. But, in 2012 it became much worse and the future looks even more bleak.
Last May, the State revised its Budget to knock $540 million from Court funding including a cut of $300 million from operations and delaying another $240 million from new Court construction. The impacts were felt quickly. In July, Sacramento Superior Court effectively eliminated the ability to file cases at the Public Counter at the Courthouse. Effective July 2nd, all cases are now filed by leaving them in a dropbox. Staff then unloads the box, eventually scans the documents, and then posts them to an online document system which parties and attorneys must search to find out if their case has been filed. Now what used to take minutes at the Court’s former Public Counter, takes weeks and is severely delaying justice, especially in what are supposed to be expedited matters such as Unlawful Detainer (Eviction) cases as well as thise seeking Restraining Orders to stop injuries.
As reported by Melanie Turner in the Sacramento Business Journal, in the Sacramento region, cuts to court systems are creating challenges for civil attorneys, property management companies and others who now face extended waits for lawsuits to go to trial and delays for evictions and debt collection. “I do think businesses are seeing related challenges because there’s not a viable alternative to solving business disputes,” said June Coleman, president of the Sacramento County Bar Association. For instance, she said, a company in a patent dispute that wanted to stop a competitor from selling a competing product had previously been able to file, and be granted, a same-day temporary restraining order, she said. Now, it’s taking a month just to get a case number, which means attorneys can’t even begin to file additional documents or serve documents on an opposing party, she said.
Faced with such delays, many parties are considering using private Arbitration to get swifter justice. But all parties must agree for that process to occur. Certainly tenants being eveicted are not going to consent to a faster process. Further, private arbitration is much more costly than the Court system and so the reality is that it primarily is only an option for those with money.
Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Laurie Earl said she’s received complaints from attorneys who say they filed a complaint two weeks ago, but it’s still not entered into the court’s online system and therefore is still not active. “It’s unavoidable at this point, and expected to get worse next year,” she said. Since 2008, the Sacramento County Superior Court’s workforce has shrunk from 834 full-time employees to just more than 600 today, slowing service in every division. If Proposition 30 fails in the November election, the court expects an $11 million deficit – and to lose another 100 jobs. “Unless there’s some reprieve I think we are looking at devastating reductions to our court,” Earl said. “Sacramento thus far has not had to close courtrooms, but I don’t know that we can avoid that next year.” In August, San Francisco Superior Court announced it would close 25 civil courtrooms, and San Joaquin County courts announced all small claims filed after Sept. 1 would not be processed until the court can add more staff.
Meanwhile, the court’s inability to timely process default judgments means a business owner that gets a favorable judgment could wait eight months to be paid. By then, the business that owes money may have folded or an individual may be tough to track down.
Eviction attorney, Gary Link, said evictions used to be rapidly processed, with notices of default getting to tenants in six days, but the process is now experiencing “incredible delays.” A renter who has stopped paying, for instance, could get another 28 days to stay put, In addition, Link said, local budget cuts have forced the county sheriff’s department to reduce the number of days it performs lock-outs, from five to three. Delays to property managers seeking to evict tenants are costing them hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. “It’s costing our members money and it’s costing communities in terms of safety,” said Cory Koehler, senior deputy director of the Rental Housing Association of Sacramento Valley.
Long lines, increased wait times and fee hikes already are the norm in local courts. It’s also changing the way lawyers do business as they become more circumspect about the cases they are willing to litigate. “Trial courts have taken four straight years of cutbacks,” Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg said in a news release. He’s also a member of the Judicial Council of California and chair of the Trial Court President Judges Executive Committee. “We simply cannot sustain another year of cuts without erosion of our ability to provide timely and full access to the public.”
So there are no easy answers ahead for litigants and their attorneys. However, these delays will put a premium on attorneys that can negotiate settlements. Through settlement, more and more parties find that a faster resolution saves time, money, and stress and provides a certainty of result even if that result is less than they might have received at a trial.
If you or someone you know is facing litigation or are frustrated at the process and unending delays, our BPE Law flat fee Consultation Program can offer knowledge of what to expect and form strategies to achieve your best overall resolution. To schedule a Consultation, please contact our office at (916) 966-2260 or e-mail me at <a href=”