Although the budget crisis in California has lasted for years, the state court system has until now managed to avoid the worst possible scenarios. Courts have survived these hard times by depleting their reserves and diverting their capital budgets for operations. Having exhausted those strategies, and with no prospect of restoration of full funding in sight, the courts have finally had to take more drastic actions to grapple with huge funding shortfalls. Recently, the Los Angeles County Court system announced their plan to deal with budget cuts by closing 10 regional courthouses, including the branch courthouses in Beverly Hills, Malibu, Pomona, and Whittier. These facilities may end up staying open only for such purposes as paying traffic tickets. Their courtrooms will be shuttered.
A lot of ADR advocates are not going to mourn the loss of courthouses, and some think the decline of the public system could even be good for the private mediation business. To look at court funding cutbacks that way, however, is to ignore the real impact that closing courthouses will have. For people who need access to court, whether to process restraining orders, get a divorce, collect a debt, or obtain compensation for injuries, it is not good news to be faced with more delays and higher costs. It also marks the decline of a concept of neighborhood justice that all these branch courthouses represented. In a far-flung county as large as Los Angeles, that concept spared a lot of people a lot of long trips downtown. Now litigants will have to adjust to a more centralized, more crowded, and much slower system.
Mediators depend on the court system more than they sometimes credit. Even if we are only pointing out the system’s imperfections and high costs, we are still relying on the court system as an inducement for parties to settle. Looking at the system in a more positive light, I like to be able to advise people embroiled in a dispute that they always retain the option of having their case decided by a judge or jury. It’s much harder to tell people they are out of options. Wouldn’t we rather allow people to retain the comfort of a public justice system even if they don’t need to use it? When parties sign any contract, they feel they have the full force of the law behind them, even if they don’t need to go to court to enforce it. When people resolve a dispute through mediation, they should also understand that their agreement bears the force of law. We can only provide that assurance if we have a functioning court system.
Courthouses function as gateways as well as destinations. Litigants commonly think of the courthouse as the place that will decide their dispute. But the courthouse might be better thought of as an intake system for disputes. Resolution of the dispute may be farmed out to an arbitrator or a mediator, or parties may reach a resolution by their own devices. Very few civil cases will end by trial even if we had all the courthouses in the world available. If we think of the courts more as an intake system than as a final destination, I wonder how efficient it is going to prove to force litigants to start their journeys in the massive downtown courthouse. Faced with that prospect, will litigants devise other ways to commence the process?