Actually, the exact quote could be found on stickers worn by union reps outside LA’s downtown courthouse last week: “Justice has left the building.” But if you’re in California, or for that matter, if you’re poor anywhere, it’s really “civil justice” that’s not only left the building but has essentially flown off to wherever Elvis himself is these days. And I don’t mean Vegas.
Responding to a severe statewide budget crisis, on Friday the Los Angeles County court system began a series of extraordinary layoffs and cutbacks affecting “431 employees and 56 [mostly civil] courtrooms in a county that's home to nearly 10 million people.”
Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said it was one of the saddest days in the history of the Los Angeles Superior Court. She expressed concerns for the people laid off as well as consumers who will face a slowdown in resolving civil cases.
"Could we be heading toward five year delays getting to trial?" Edmon asked. "I certainly think so."
While it’s the largest county affected, it’s not the only county affected:
In Fresno County, seven branch courthouses in outlying areas are being closed. Residents in those rural areas will have to travel longer distances to file lawsuits.
In Ventura County, as in Los Angeles County, the services of court reporters are being eliminated for civil trials. Litigants will have to hire their own court stenographers and in some cases judges are being told they may have to take notes on their own cases rather than rely on a printed record. …
The union representing state and municipal employees – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – called Friday's action a "freeze on justice in Los Angeles" and warned that the county would experience "an end to timely justice" with cases being delayed for years, particularly in civil courts.
And as bad as this all is, it’s nothing compared to what’s happened to the poor in the country. NPR ran a heartbreaking story on Friday about the state of crisis in which Legal Services finds itself because “the number of poor people who need legal advice has gone through the roof — more senior citizens and more homeowners who lost their jobs” while at the same time there are severe funding cutbacks. NPR started the story with a key observation:
Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that people accused of a crime deserve the right to a defense lawyer, no matter whether they can afford to pay for one. But there's no such guarantee when it comes to civil disputes — like evictions and child custody cases — even though they have a huge impact on people's lives.
For decades, federal and state governments have pitched in to help. But money pressures mean the system for funding legal aid programs for the poor is headed toward a crisis.
Legal Aid offices are being closed all over the country. People are being turned away in droves. “Imagine that a woman being abused who comes in to seek a protective order against an abuser who may have a lawyer himself, and she's turned away because there aren't children involved, ” said Jim Sandman of the Legal Services Corp.
Looks what’s happening in New Jersey, for example. According to a new report by Legal Services of New Jersey:
Fewer than one in 10 poor adults in New Jersey are able to get a lawyer to represent them when they're threatened with eviction, foreclosure or other serious legal problems.
That means an estimated 400,000 people go without the legal representation they need,. And the consequences can be catastrophic, the report adds.
“The inability to afford a lawyer or get legal help too often determines whether a family is evicted from an apartment, if a home is foreclosed, if an ailing man gets disability benefits or even if child-custody payments are sufficient to feed and clothe the children of a broken home,” said Melville D. Miller Jr., president of Legal Services.
The solution proposed to address this is to increase fees plaintiffs pay to file civil cases (see today's Philly Inquirer editorial ), although I have to say that ironically, increased filing fees will probably chill access to the civil courts for some.
Bottom line here is summed up in the quote from Legal Services Corp.’s Jim Sandman:
"We're talking about access to justice here. Access to justice is a fundamental American value. We have a great legal system in the United States, but it's built on the premise that you have a lawyer. And if you don't have a lawyer, the system often doesn't work for you."
(And BTW that goes for contingency-fee lawyers, too, who are unable to represent the injured in far too many states because of fee caps and other “tort reforms.” Just sayin'.)