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Legislation Would Reduce Access to Justice

Loren Kaye
President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education

California’s courts are struggling to accommodate years of budget cuts. The judiciary has absorbed ongoing reductions of more than a half-billion dollars. More than $1 billion in construction projects for courthouses has been diverted to the General Fund to balance the state budget.

The consequence of these reductions are reduced access to justice: closing courthouses, reducing hours and shuttering self-help centers.

Even as the economy begins its recovery, relief for the judiciary is not in sight. The Governor has urged the courts to “control and manage their costs,” and has dampened expectations that there will be more general revenues provided to the judicial branch.

Understanding this crisis roiling the courts, the Legislature is acting – to make matters worse.

The California Assembly has approved, and the Senate is now considering, legislation to make it more difficult for local courts to enter into contracts for various support services.

That’s right, judicial officers around the state are trying to maintain access to justice by finding the least disruptive efficiencies that would still provide service to the courthouses and the public. The Legislature, so far, disagrees.

According to the Judicial Council of California, trial courts are currently contracting out for a wide range of services, including court reporters, interpreters, child custody evaluations; probate investigations; mediators/alternative dispute resolution, security guards, back office support, and many more.

The legislation would stymie these cost-cutting moves by setting a high bar for contracting – that any duty “currently or customarily performed by a court employee” not be outsourced unless clear cost savings can be shown – but excluding the major source of cost savings, namely, employee wages. It would also nix the contract if any existing employee would lose seniority, hours or require a transfer. For larger contracts, the court would have to provide a ten-year history of the contractor’s performance, plus undergo extensive bureaucratic oversight tasks.

In short, the legislation stacks the deck against new cost-saving contracts, strangling the trial courts’ ability to manage their operations at the same time their revenues have been slashed. When the public asks why their access to justice is being squeezed, this is one of the reasons.

Follow Loren on Twitter: @KayeLoren

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