To address an "extreme budget shortfall," Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court plans to close its alternative dispute resolution program on June 18 after 20 years in operation.
The ADR program—the largest in the country—is the latest victim of budget cuts that have ravaged California’s judicial system. Its absence will especially punish "the average citizen who finds himself in a lawsuit," including small business owners, victims of automobile accidents or litigants with disputes over employment issues, real property or escrow problems, said Richard Burdge, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Most such cases are worth $150,000 or less.
The ADR program helped litigants resolve their cases early before an arbitrator or mediator and avoid spending more money on going to trial, he said.
"The program facilitates a lot of early settlement negotiations that otherwise might not happen," said Burdge, of The Burdge Law Firm in downtown Los Angeles, who handles complex civil litigation for businesses. "Most will still settle and not go to trial, but there will be a lot more cases clogging the system, slowing things down. With all the other changes, the system is already clogged up and slowing down."
Of the 10,000 cases referred through the ADR program during 2012, 70 percent of litigants sought free services rather than pay for their own mediator or arbitrator, he said. But as the program expanded, he said, personnel costs increased. About 60 percent of the cost comes out of the court’s budget.
Burdge predicted that, without the program, more litigants will pay for mediators or arbitrators, who charge between $300 per hour to $10,000 per day. Others will be forced to go to trial.
The Los Angeles Superior Court is reorganizing as part of a court consolidation plan taking effect through June. In November, the court announced plans to close 10 courthouses to save between $50 million and $80 million during the fiscal year that begins on July 1, including facilities in Malibu, West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and the beach communities of San Pedro and Catalina Island.
That dramatically will reduce the number of courthouses available for small claims, collection and personal injury lawsuits.
"The impacts of these changes will dwarf anything that this court has seen," Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said at the time. "We will no longer be able to be a neighborhood court providing a range of services across the county. Instead, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, law enforcement officers and others will find themselves traveling long distances to attend hearings. We will no longer be able to maintain the gains we once made in delay reduction, as we will lack the fully operating courtrooms necessary to ensure that cases are resolved in a timely manner."
As of March 18, all personal injury cases must be filed in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse. All limited civil collection actions must be filed in courthouses in suburban Chatsworth or Norwalk in southeast Los Angeles, while noncollection actions must be filed in downtown Los Angeles. New small claims cases must be filed in one of six hub locations, and unlawful detainer cases must be filed at one of five hubs locations.
The consolidations have forced attorneys and their clients to drive longer distances in the sprawling, traffic-choked county. "It’s hugely inconvenient," Burdge said. "There’s no doubt about it."
But the results could prove even more serious than that. Burdge advised lawyers to check the court’s Web site, since filing mistakes could lead to malpractice claims. And with fewer courthouses hearing civil cases, some lawyers—particularly those taking contingency fees—could have trouble getting paid as they wait years for their case to get resolved.
Furthermore, resolution under the court’s ADR program no longer will be an option. Under a plan announced on March 7, the program has stopped accepting referrals for arbitrations, mediations, neutral evaluations and voluntary settlement conferences from civil, family and probate courtrooms.
By April 30, the ADR program will close offices in courthouses across all areas of Los Angeles: suburban Lancaster; affluent Beverly Hills; lower-income Compton, Inglewood, El Monte and Norwalk; and Long Beach and San Pedro. It will stop providing mediators for small claims, unlawful detainer and civil harassment cases.
As of May 1, ADR will discontinue its daily family law settlement conferences, including Spanish-language ones, at its downtown courthouse, and by May 31 will close offices in suburban Chatsworth, Glendale, Pasadena and Van Nuys, and in Santa Monica and Torrance.
California’s judicial system comprises 58 county trial courts, with the Los Angeles Superior Court the largest.
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