Our courts in crisis?

With all types of civil filings up, the chickens have come home to roost

David M. Ring
2016 August

We are now seeing the trickle-down effects of the severe budget cuts that our courts suffered several years ago.  Things are no longer running smoothly, as they had for many years. We are facing a serious shortage of superior court judges, of courtrooms, of staff, and of the necessary financial resources to replenish and fix what has been taken away. This, in turn, has resulted in significant delays in obtaining law and motion hearing dates, in getting cases sent out to trial, and in general having court business done in an efficient and timely manner so that our clients’ cases can move towards resolution in a reasonably expedient manner. There is definite cause for concern. 

How did we get to this place we now find ourselves in? Go back to 2011 and 2012, when massive reductions were made to the budget of all courts, but particularly to the L.A. County Superior Court. These budget cuts emanated from the recession and the Governor’s decision to slice money away from organizations that perhaps he felt were not using the money efficiently and effectively. Regardless of the reasons, the budget for LASC was brutally reduced so that extreme measures were required by the LASC court administration to keep the doors of the courthouse open – closing courtrooms, eliminating staff, and other necessary evils.

As a result of the loss of judges and courtrooms and even branch courthouses, LASC had to revamp and reorganize. In spring 2013, one of the new innovations was the creation of the Personal Injury Hub in Stanley Mosk Courthouse. All personal injury cases (except overly complex ones) were filed and processed through the PI Hub.  When those cases came up for trial, they were sent to Department 1 and from there to a trial courtroom either downtown or in certain branch courts. This realignment was applauded by all of us because for the first couple of years it worked fairly well, all things considered. Importantly, PI cases that came up for trial were starting trial immediately because courtrooms were available.

The other development that PI lawyers seemed to welcome was the ability to easily continue a trial date. Any continuance was accepted. LASC was fine with that because it kept the trial courtrooms from being overwhelmed.  And it is safe to assume that most plaintiff lawyers used the continuances liberally and often.

The one persistent problem was the delay in getting law and motion disputes heard and resolved. A demurrer might be filed yet not set for a hearing until many months later. A simple discovery dispute might take months before a judge heard the motion and decided it. This was beyond frustrating for all involved, but we seemed to deal with it the best we could.

Chickens home to roost

Well, guess what? Three years later, the chickens have come home to roost. Case filings are way up. Not just PI cases, but unlawful detainers and other types of civil filings. In fact, unlawful detainer trials are a major factor in the trial courts being clogged. Many unlawful detainer cases that previously routinely settled now go to trial. PI cases are taking much longer to reach final resolution. All those trial continuances we obtained? Now, suddenly, those cases are three years old and can’t be continued any more. We are starting to see some PI cases reach the five-year mark, which requires a mandatory start of trial or dismissal of the case.

Judge vacancies have not been filled by the Governor.  LASC could use 20 or more new judges right now just to get all courtrooms open and back to where things stood before the budget cuts. These developments are reminiscent of how our courts were back in the late 1980’s, when most cases approached the five-year mark before getting to trial. That crisis was eventually solved by the “fast track” rules which were strictly enforced and required cases to be finalized within a year or so of being filed.

Frustration is understandably growing amongst us. Trial dates are very uncertain, trailing is the norm, law and motion is a disaster in terms of the time it takes to have a motion heard in the PI Hub and in many independent calendar courts. Our clients suffer in silence. Justice delayed is justice denied.

What can we do? I have met with the court leaders. This is an incredibly complicated situation; there is no easy solution …. unless the Governor suddenly pours many millions of dollars back into LASC on a permanent basis. But the next budget is a year away. In the meantime, we all need to take every chance we can to communicate with our legislators and explain to them the fundamental importance of having the courts adequately funded again. This is not a “plaintiff lawyer” issue. It is not even a “lawyer” issue. It is the basic right of all California citizens to have access to the justice system. Access means fair and timely access. It does not mean waiting five years for a case to go to trial.  That is not “access.”

We have to be advocates for the court. The court has no advocate. When we, as consumer attorneys, want to push legislation that will help consumers, we go to Sacramento and we persuade legislators it is the right thing to enact into law. Of course, big business and the insurance and medical industries do the same thing on a daily basis. But no one does that for the courts. We, as lawyers for the people, need to step up and take on that fight. We can do it through CAALA and Consumer Attorneys of California. But we must do it. That, unfortunately, is the only real solution to this very big problem.

As far as what we are doing on a short-term basis to alleviate delays: We are trying to put back in place a system for mediating PI cases on the verge of trial. A successful mediation program would reduce the flow of cases going to trial. Also, the LASC administration is closely examining any and all possibilities to reduce the lag time on having discovery disputes heard and is committed to fixing that problem.

The bottom line 

It could get worse before it gets better. However, it does not help to chastise the court leaders. Do you think they want this problem? They have their hands tied − no money, no new judges, no additional staff, no new courtrooms.  This isn’t just limited to PI cases; family law courts and criminal courts have similar, if not worse, problems.

I urge you: let’s work together to fix this. We must tell every legislator we can about the funding issue. We must get more permanent (not one-time) money to the courts in 2017 and beyond. This is not a plaintiff issue or a defense issue: this is a justice issue.

David M. Ring David M. Ring

David M. Ring is a partner with Taylor & Ring, where he specializes in plaintiffs’ personal injury and wrongful death cases. He also specializes in representing victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual abuse, assault or harassment, in civil cases and has obtained many precedent-setting verdicts and settlements in that area of law. He was named Personal Injury Lawyer of the Year (2015) by California Lawyer. The Daily Journal selected him as one of the Top 25 Plaintiff Lawyers in California (2015).

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