Los Angeles Superior Court Update: Budget Cuts

I went to a meeting today with the Honorable Thomas Trent Lewis at the Los Angeles Superior Court. He wanted to update the family law bar, forensic accountants, and custody expert witnesses about what exactly is going on at the court given all the budget cuts.

los angeles superior court

It was pretty interesting. Infuriating, but interesting.

Background below. Here’s what made me nuts:

The Judge said something to the effect of:  we’ve all made a lot of money off this system and it’s treated us well over the years (NOTE: that is pretty much a quote–seriously).  At the moment, it’s time to try and settle some cases to help us get rid of some of this backlog and to deal with the budget cuts [and go back to making money off the system when some of this is cleaned up].

I thought my head was going to blow off.

Aren’t ethical lawyers supposed to try and settle cases if they can be settled without having to go to court, provided that justice will still be served?

What I interpreted was, “Settle a couple of your money makers and we’ll all get back to normal.”  That is my interpretation–that is not what he said. But it’s what he implied, IMHO.

My colleague said, “I wonder if they’ll refer cases to mediation since they’re so backed up?” 

So I said, “Let’s ask!”  So she very bravely asked the Judge if the court would be referring cases to mediation. And he said “Oh yes!” and named off a bunch of last-minute, knock-heads style “mediation” efforts that will be forced upon litigants who are scheduled for trial to see if they can settle. 

In these “mediations” everyone is being paid except the mediator.  The mediator is a volunteer….who probably isn’t really a mediator, but an experienced litigation attorney who maybe had mediation training and maybe did not, and who maybe has experience mediating and maybe does not.

He wasn’t talking about early intervention mediations.  And I clarified with him, and asked, “We’re talking about private mediations,” to which he responded in a hostile tone, “That is YOUR marketing problem.”

Wow.

I thought maybe the court would finally embrace mediation as a way to help people stay out of court……if only because it would help the court balance its budget.  But no.   Even the judges realize that the true money is to be made when people hire lawyers and go to court, and they’re not going to do anything to jeopardize even $1 of those legal fees in order to help the people who really need to go to court get there?  Wow.

Wow.  I feel so naive.  Usually the judges will at least pay lip service to mediation and other ADR processes which help people stay out of court.  I guess not this time.

Here’s a bit of background:

The Los Angeles Superior Court has had $118 million in budget cuts. They were able to cut $70 million by attrition and other measures which meant they didn’t have to lay off a bunch of people.  But that leaves $48 million still to be cut….and probably an additional $30 million (for a grand total of $78 million still to be cut) given Governor Brown’s budget cut news of just a couple of days ago.

They just canceled every single trial date starting July 2, 2012. So if you’ve been getting divorced for 2 or 3 years and you finally have a trial date….you don’t have a trial date anymore. Here’s the official court order on vacating trial dates.

The Burbank court has been closed, and their cases have been moved to Pasadena.

They’re cutting non-courtroom staff, which means processing paperwork is going to take even longer than the 4 months it currently takes to process stipulated judgments.  That’s not much of a reward for staying out of court and settingling out of court, now is it?

They’re closing 1 courtroom in the downtown courthouse. That’s not too bad, except for the judges who’ll have to take over the 1400 cases assigned to that courtroom (I’m guessing here…but I’m sure it’s quite a few, given that 41,000 divorces are filed in LA County every year and there are about 30 family law courtrooms).   Never mind the backlog of cases.  So maybe that number is more like 2000.  I can’t be sure, and try as I might to find the statistics, the court information office won’t answer my questions and I can’t find it online.

There’s a new trial court and they’re trying to expedite cases through the system….but hey, I used to work there and I witnessed the work environment and push to be mediocre.  If you were outright terrible, you’d get fired (but that didn’t happen very often).  If you were really good, and tried to change things, you also go fired.  Seriously. My supervisor said I was going to get fired because I wrote a book (the manuscript was turned in before I was hired), Your Divorce Advisor, and that was practicing law and I wasn’t allowed to practice law while I worked at the court. Seriously?

Anyway, thanks for listening.