Across the country, cash-strapped state and local governments are not just cutting services — they're also cutting access to courts. The tip of the iceberg may be small claims courts.
These courts, dealing with disputes involving small sums of money, are the workhorses of the judicial system. There are thousands of such courts across the country, but perhaps nowhere are they being cut more dramatically than in California.
Small claims courts were created in the mid-20th century to allow people to resolve monetary disputes that are small in the greater scheme of things but huge to people of limited means.
And they're unique in how efficient they are. Defendants and plaintiffs don't need a lawyer and judges usually make their rulings on the spot, often in 30 minutes or less. They're meant for people like Mark Delnero, the owner of a charter fishing boat company.
In December, Delnero drove to the San Joaquin County Courthouse, plunked down a $30 fee and asked the small claims court to give him justice. He claimed a customer stiffed him with a bad check for $740. Then, he says, the court let him down, too. "Nothing like being shafted twice," Delnero says. "Once by the bad-check bouncer and then by the Stockton court."
'Your Case Sits And Goes Nowhere'
The court told him he would receive notice of a hearing in 90 days, Delnero says, but he never heard anything. So he called the small claims courts after 90 days and then again after 120 days.
Both times, he says, the court told him his case still wasn't scheduled. "I don't have faith in how the courts work," Delnero says. "I'm just in awe. I don't know what to think."
More than 800 other people in San Joaquin County are facing the same situation. The Stockton court hasn't set a trial date for any small claims cases filed since September and officials say they don't know when they'll start setting dates.
"In our county, if you file a small claims case it simply sits in the proverbial box waiting to get a trial date. Your case sits and goes nowhere," says the court's presiding judge, David Warner. "It's not right, but you have to have sufficient resources to get those cases done and we don't have those resources."
Other courts are implementing similar cost-saving measures. Los Angeles County Superior Court will soon reduce the number of courthouses at which it hears small claims cases from 27 to just six. The county also plans to close down eight courthouses entirely.
'A Practical Versus A Real Right'
The cuts have led community groups to file to a lawsuit claiming the reduction in services disproportionately affects minorities and low-income people.
Poor people have the same right to go to the court as the wealthy, says Ken Theisen, an advocate with Bay Area Legal Aid. "But ... if you don't have an attorney, if you don't have the means to go to court, if you don't have the time to spend hours and hours waiting in line, the reality is you are denied access to justice. It's a practical right versus a real right."
That real right for his day in court is something Delnero is still waiting for — and he's losing hope. "It's not going to ever happen, is it?" he asks. "Because I could use the money now. I'm struggling to pay rent.
"Rent is due today, as a matter of fact," he adds.
As state court systems grapple with reduced budgets, a "new normal" has emerged — one that involves limited clerks hours, longer wait times to go to trial, fewer court reporters, and higher fees just to try to get justice. Even though you might end up waiting a very long time.