Civil Justice Reform in California Courts

Excerpted from the State of the Judiciary Address, presented to the Legislature on March 19, 2018.
Mar 20, 2018

Refering to the Governor's 2018 budget proposal for the judicial branch, with $123 million in additional funds for trial courts, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye highlights in her 2018 address the critical need for service restoration for court users' civil cases. The following is excerpted:

"Few of us need to be reminded that in the Great Recession, civil cases took a back seat to criminal cases. For many courts, civil dockets were, and continue to be, greatly delayed.

This additional money would help courts help those who were unfortunately left behind—those seeking civil justice.

Civil justice encompasses wide and complicated bodies of law like constitutional law, environmental law, consumer law, and health and welfare across the board.

It focuses on claims for personal injury, discrimination, retaliation, misconduct, lost jobs, and many more.

And who is left behind? Children, elders, veterans, businesses, neighbors, and constituents.

I know everyone in this room is committed to providing a timely, fair, and accessible day in court for our constituents.

This money will provide an opportunity for courts to help and resolve cases in a timelier manner in the civil arena.

And this is important because what we know is there is an onslaught of cases waiting to be filed. With the fires alone, we’re informed that our residents have filed more than 45,000 insurance claims totaling nearly $12 billion dollars, concerning 32,000 homes and 4,000 businesses.

And so knowing that in California we have had a historical delay in our civil justice arena, and in the anticipation of new cases, I think it’s time and it’s really fair at this point to announce and focus on a three-tiered civil justice reform initiative.

And the first tier of the civil justice reform initiative should be that we restore courthouses to their full operating hours and staff. And that we provide fair compensation to our court family.

As a second part of this tier, I suggest that we embrace the three recommendations that are highlighted in the Governor’s proposed budget, which is to provide additional funding for self-represented litigants, technology and traffic, and language access.

And third, I think we should work collectively to develop and employ a group of people called, for lack of a better term, legal Wayfinders, who could personally assist people who come to court without an attorney. We know that we could work together and also find best practices and draw on the work of our self-help programs and our excellent volunteer JusticeCorps folks who are used now in Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area.

So what could legal Wayfinders do?

Legal Wayfinders can meet people and guide them to the appropriate window, appropriate courtroom, appropriate courthouse. A legal Wayfinder could explain the options and the consequences and the procedures and find the right form and actually help the person fill out the form and get it filed in the right place. A legal Wayfinder could provide referrals for services, not only in the courtroom, but out in the community. A legal Wayfinder could do this on a one-on-one basis or in a workshop setting.

We have examples from which to draw. For example, a JusticeCorps volunteer, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, tells us that in her job she helps women in her community obtain domestic violence restraining orders, and she helps tenants who are near eviction.

A self-help attorney in Alameda tells us that she helps people who “are one day away from homelessness.”

Another attorney tells us that “we can’t stress enough the value of self-help because it provides the best possible outcome for all litigants and it helps keep the courts running effectively. Because if the paperwork isn’t filled out properly, it only results in delays.”

So, in closing—I know all of us here support a fair and accessible justice system, and our residents deserve that. And it’s only natural that California be the leader in this regard.

On the national front, we have unprecedented disruption, attacks on the free press, threats to the rule of civility, the Rule of Law, and judicial independence.

But fortunately, our founders focused much on the limits of power in the Constitution when they constructed the three branches of government, the checks and balances, as well as adopting the Bill of Rights and building a federal system that still recognizes the rights of states to govern some of their own business.

We know that in California, California’s right to govern its own affairs is now being litigated in federal court. So it’s only natural that nationally, the Law Day theme this year is “Separation of Powers: Framework for Freedom.”

Our Governor said in his State of the State that for California, we persevere, and the bolder way is still our way forward.

And so I ask you to help, together, to stay on the bold path and provide for a fair, accessible justice system.

Thank you for your attention.