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Court budget crisis creates long lines at legal self-help centers

Under CC license from Flickr user s_falkow

One of the areas hit hardest by state budget cuts is California’s judicial branch. Governor Jerry Brown and the Legislature cut $350 million from the court system this past fiscal year.

In response, courts across the state have had to reduce hours and lay off staff. In San Diego, San Bernardino, Tulare, and Fresno counties, whole courthouses have closed down. That means people who have civil and family court proceedings like restraining orders, custody cases, and divorce will have to travel further, wait longer, and pay more to use the legal system.

In the Bay Area, Contra Costa Superior Court has said it will have to close six courtrooms by the end of the year. In San Francisco, residents may lose access to one of the only places they can get help navigating the legal system without paying for a lawyer: the Superior Court’s self-help center.

Going it alone

The line of people outside of the San Francisco Superior Courthouse spans the entire block of McAllister Street, all the way down to Polk Street.

Most people in the line are professionals: attorneys, court staff, and jurors who will spend their days shepherding people through the legal system. Then there are the people planning to navigate that system themselves. People like Anthony Travis.

“Unfortunately that’s the only way I can get it done if I take off work,” Travis says waiting in line, “but it’s worth it. I don’t mind, instead of paying a lawyer thousands of dollars to do the same paperwork they’re going to do.”

Travis is waiting for the self-help center, a place that gives him and other city residents a chance to represent themselves in court. Volunteers and pro bono lawyers help them fill out paperwork for things like custody or divorce cases. Travis says he started using the center a few years ago.

“I’ve got eight kids, and so I’ve gone through the system a lot here,” he says. “Child support cases, mama trying to take your money, you know how that goes. But the case ended up in my favor and I won. And it saves a whole bunch of money.”

It can save people tens of thousands of dollars, especially in court cases that drag on for years. Luisa Eagleton started her custody battle four years ago. She comes to the self-help center about once a month.

“I’ve hired about three to four different attorneys. I’ve spent about 25 to 30 grand in that and I never got the resolution that I needed,” she says. “They look over my paperwork, they review, they make sure everything is how it’s supposed to be before I file that way there are no issues come the hearing date. So I love it.”

Going it alone isn’t a rare thing. Last year in San Francisco, 85 percent of the parties in divorce and domestic partnership cases represented themselves. On average, the self-help center sees around 140 people a day. Repeated budget cuts mean they have to squeeze more people into fewer hours, which in turn means less one-on-one time for everyone.

The self-help center’s director Judy Louie says they’re open just three days per week now instead of five, while more and more people are coming in.

“I think that the way the economy is, we see a lot of folks that do not qualify for fee waivers,” Louie says, “they do have a decent income, but because of foreclosures or debt or lawyers who have student loans, there’s a lot of people who are facing hardship who cannot afford the average attorney retainer fee, so they do come in and they do self-represent and they want to come in to find out how to do that on their own.”

San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein has been watching the courtroom budget crisis unfold in front of her. She also sees people doing things on their own, but she says it shouldn’t have to be that way.

“We don’t have anybody to put the piece of paper in the file,” Feinstein says, “and unless until we’re able to replace those folks, that’s not going to change.”

Feinstein says the public hasn’t even seen the worst of the cuts. For example, judges are no longer getting a free copy of the civil code of procedure, a book with all the California statutes that judges and lawyers depend on. Feinstein says it’s like sending a priest to work without a bible. At the same time, she says, the demand for court hearings keeps increasing.

“When the legislature is in doubt about what to do, it creates the right to a court hearing,” she says, “and that’s fine, but you need judges. You need courtrooms. You need court reporters. You need bailiffs. You need courtroom clerks. … And if you’re not going to provide the resources for a court hearing, don’t create the right to one because people aren’t going to be able to avail themselves of the right.”

Back outside the courthouse, the line for the self-help center is finally starting to move. Luisa Eagleton is ready to finish her paperwork.

“I’m going to be here a long time and I really hope this isn’t cut,” Eagleston says. “I probably have enough experience to where I know what to do, but I would feel really awful for others who haven’t a clue and they wouldn’t have that help.”

Holding her stack of manila folders, Eagleton walks inside to get that help while she still can.