Opinion: How to deal with unprecedented court budget cuts

Over the past couple weeks there has been some dire news on the major delays Californians can expect to see in our courts as a result of the most recent budget cuts.  The 2011-12 budget cuts $350 million from the court system, the largest in state court history.  An equally devastating cut is projected for next year, and plans for new courthouses are on hold as well, as lawmakers also shifted $310 million from a courthouse construction fund to help cover this year’s shortfall.  The San Francisco County Superior Court announced that its civil division will basically be shut down.

Funding for the courts has now been reduced by 30 percent over the last three years. The Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC) has consistently opposed these cuts. There are plenty of legitimate civil disputes that need to be resolved in court and Californians deserve a court system that can settle these disputes in a timely fashion.    

But the budget decision has been made, and now we have to figure out the best way to deal with it. Here are three suggestions. 

First, don’t make things worse! We cannot pass legislation that will throw more cases into a court system that can’t handle the current caseload. This means the Legislature needs to reject proposals like this year’s AB 1062, which would eliminate the long-standing right of immediate appeal when a lower court dismisses an arbitration agreement.  Under this bill, when one party that voluntarily agreed to arbitrate any dispute changes their mind and wants to go to court instead, it will be easier for them to do so.  The immediate right of appeal has been around for 50 years and without it, there will be more cases in court that should have been resolved through arbitration.

The leads us right into the second suggestion: look to existing alternatives. Arbitration is one of course, and is a fast, fair, and effective way to relieve pressure on the courts.  The National Workrights Institute found that employees were almost 20 percent more likely to win employment cases in arbitration than in court, and consumer cases administered by the American Arbitration Association last only four to six months compared to 25 months in court, which also means lower attorney’s fees. 

Another alternative is greater use of expedited jury trials, created last year in AB 2284, which was authored by now-Senator Noreen Evans and received broad support from across the spectrum.  In fact, the proposal to create expedited jury trials was supported by both CJAC and the Consumer Attorneys of California. With these one-day, binding trials, the costs and time of a trial – and therefore court costs — are substantially reduced.

Third, we need to pass some reform measures that will keep frivolous cases out of the courts so there’s more time to focus on the legitimate cases.  One good example is this year’s SB 603, authored by Tom Berryhill, which would have given judges greater ability to designate plaintiffs “vexatious litigants.” A vexatious litigant is one who abuses the court system by filing meritless or harassing claims. Once labeled as such, that plaintiff must seek special approval before suing again. Current law only allows a vexatious litigant designation when there is no attorney present. Unfortunately, having an attorney does not stop malicious or baseless claims. This bill would have removed such an illogical limitation.  

 One area in particular where we see repeated filings is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims. In these “drive-by lawsuits”, some plaintiff’s lawyers seek only settlement money – rather than access improvements.  In 2008, the Legislature established a process for pre-litigation conferences between two parties in ADA disputes, but unfortunately the settlement demands from unscrupulous lawyers continue.  The Legislature needs to give greater consideration to proposals like this year’s SB 783, authored by Senator Bob Dutton, which would have kept more ADA disputes outside of the courtroom by giving business owners a brief opportunity to make fixes before they could be sued.

These suggestions will not only help with the current crisis, they are also in the best long-term fiscal interest of the courts.  Now is the time to reassess how our courts prioritize their time. We can help them weather the current storm and makes things easier on them in the future by making California less litigious.

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