Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How to Survive Family Law and Probate After the Budget Plague

Come summertime, 2013, all I can say is woe to the poor litigant trying to get something accomplished either in family law or probate court. And woe to the poor attorney who will be trying to get paid for time spent sitting around the courthouse, waiting months to get heard, having to redo, revise and relearn what was previously readied for court and set aside for yet another continuance.  Woe to the family, especially the little ones, having to live in a dysfunctional environment months, if not years, after the issues should have been resolved.  Woe to the widow or children of the deceased trying to move on and learn to live without their loved one.  Woe to the people who have too much in income or assets to qualify for any type of assistance and not enough money to warrant handling their case as it deserves to be handled, by competent, professional and decent attorneys who charge commensurate with their expertise.

By the end of June, the courts will have 350 fewer employees and 56 fewer courtrooms, which officials said will slow down the resolution of criminal, civil, family court and juvenile delinquency cases. The courts will also stop providing court reporters for civil trials and pare back their use in motions hearings, officials said, meaning litigants will have to hire their own transcribers if they want to record testimony. Never before has a budget crisis dealt so crippling a blow to our court.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court says it will have to eliminate at least 511 jobs by late June as part of a sweeping effort to cut its budget by $85 million.  With those cuts, the nation's largest trial court system will have lost 24 percent of its employees over the last four years. Officials say state funding cuts over the last several years has forced the court to reduce its annual spending by $110 million.  The court has also closed eight regional courthouses and eliminated its alternative dispute center, which provides arbitration, mediation and settlement conference as an option to litigation.   These cuts will result in long lines and travel distances that will no doubt deter people from seeking and getting the justice they deserve.  Many of the elderly and infirm will be unable to travel.  This has spawned a lawsuit filed on behalf of court patrons seeks to prevent the cuts, saying they will negatively affect disable people who need court services. Those who have to travel prohibitively far distances are part of this lawsuit.

As of this writing, the Probate Department, which handles conservatorships, guardianships, will contests, trust contests as well as run of the mill will probates, does not quite have a handle on what it is going to do come June 1st.  The probate departments of all of the 8 branch courts handling probate matters will be closed.  Those judges will be reassigned and in their place will be 3 other commissioners and/or less experienced judges from the branch courts, none of whom have had any experience with probate matters, who will be herded downtown to rotate use of one courtroom and one set of staff.

The Family Law Department has already lost the majority of its seasoned judicial officers, who have been replaced with judges totally lacking in ANY experience, much less expertise, in the very complicated, difficult and emotionally taxing mine field that is family law. Furthermore, these judicial officers, like many before them, really have no basic interest or patience in helping family law litigants through the most difficult time of their lives.

Luckily, the Probate Department is filled with the former stars of the Family Law Department who survived not only still liking what they did, but went on to create excellent templates in their probate courtroom for the newbie judges to model their own courtrooms after.

Litigants as well as their attorneys are beginning to realize that the court closures and budget cuts will be a windfall for the private judges who can attend handily to the needs of the well-healed and well-situated clients.  Private judging is not right for everyone and, clearly, with this disastrous financial crisis, the two-tiered system of justice has made itself indispensable for some and a nightmare for everyone else.