California may increase the price of justice

SACRAMENTO
February 15, 2013 12:14pm
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•  Raft of new, higher fees proposed for courts

•  How nickel-and-diming can add up to real bucks


It might cost you a nickel a side to get a document copied at a Staples or OfficeMax store. How would you like to pay $1 a page?

Or perhaps you have to put something in the mail. While first class stamps are now 46 cents, paying for the first ounce, how would you like to pay $15 “to cover the cost of postal rate increases that have occurred over the past few years?”

Those are some of the possible price hikes coming to a California court near you, assuming you have one near you these days, as the courts try to nickel-and-dime their way to solvency.

The Legislative Analysts Office makes note of a raft of fee increases being studied because, apparently, the state’s court system cannot operate on what taxpayers are paying.

The state’s trial courts face ongoing budget reductions and beginning in 2014-15 will no longer have significant reserves with which to offset these reductions, says the new LAO report, released Friday.

“The Legislature will want to have judges, court executives, and other court stakeholders report on what plans they are making to implement reductions, how these plans will impact court users, and what options the courts and the Legislature have to reduce court operations costs,” it says.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposes $3.1 billion from all state funds to support the judicial branch in 2013-14, an increase of $206 million, or roughly 7 percent, above the revised amount for 2012-13.

But the following year the ax swings again at the court system, with some $234 million scheduled to be chopped.

The courts have had to absorb $214 million in General Fund reductions in 2011-12 and 2012-13 by leaving staff vacancies unfilled to reduce employee compensation costs, renegotiating contracts, delaying purchases, closing courtrooms or courthouses, reducing clerk office hours, and reducing self-help and family law services.

In San Joaquin County in the Central Valley, the entire Small Claims Court was closed, leaving small businesses with no practical alternative to collect money that is owed.

The impacts have reduced public access to court services statewide, the LAO report says. Many courtroom and courthouse closures occurred in outlying branch locations, which now forces some court users to travel further distances to go to a different location.

“Additionally, courts report that reductions in service hours of clerks’ offices, self-help centers, and family law offices result in long lines and, in some cases, court users being turned away,” the report says.

The report says that while Mr. Brown’s proposed efficiencies and user fee increases provide some additional funds to help trial courts meet their ongoing reductions, additional solutions will still be required to address the bulk of their reduction

“Absent legislative action, trial courts will likely expand upon these actions to address $234 million in additional ongoing reductions that require solutions in 2014-15. This would likely further reduce public access to court services,” it says.

The LAO says that the Legislature should establish its own priorities for how the budget reductions will be implemented by the judicial branch and determine whether to minimize further impacts to court users by providing additional offsetting resources on a one-time or ongoing basis.

Drilldown


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