Thursday, July 28, 2011

Do Families Matter?: San Franciso’s “Dismantling” of the Family Courts

We at CFCC are shocked and disturbed to learn that the San Francisco Superior Courts are reduced to a shell of their current state as a result of major budget cuts. The system has laid off forty percent of its workers and plans to shut 25 courtrooms. According to a Courthouse News Service article, Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein stated sadly: “We now know the trial courts are the lowest priority in Sacramento.” This is a devastating outcome for San Francisco’s children and families, who turn to the courts for help during difficult and critical times.

What will this mean for San Francisco families? An uncontested divorce, which normally is finalized in five months, may now take a year and a half. A more complex divorce may take years to wind its way through the court process. Child custody cases, which generally are settled in about six weeks, now can take more than six months to resolve. This delay leaves many vulnerable children and families in a state of crisis for unacceptable periods of time. Research has shown that the sooner a family achieves some sort of permanent and predictable outcome following family dissolution, the less likelihood there is for damage to the psychological well-being of family members, especially children.

The time crisis is not the only effect of these cuts. One court clerk has said there is no way the courts can expect to maintain their current level of customer service. This is especially serious for the rapidly increasing number of self-represented litigants, who often need some assistance to understand which court forms to complete and how to accomplish their goals. As a consequence of court clerk cutbacks, the self-represented may need to wait in very long lines with little chance of support from the clerks, thereby ensuring that a final resolution of family law issues will not be achieved for their families.

Even those families lucky enough to be able afford attorneys are likely to face mounting legal fees, as the time spent waiting at the courthouse during each step of the process is bound to increase, depleting even more of the family’s assets in the process. Instead, families who can afford it may turn to the private, for-profit dispute resolution industry to avoid the personal costs of the public system.

Although the family justice system is not as high profile as the criminal justice system, the family law docket is universally the largest docket that state courts face. If we continue to de-value it, the impact on the community, and especially its most vulnerable members, is going to be dramatic. We understand that it is difficult to make tough funding decisions in an economic crisis. Nonetheless, we urge policymakers around the country to seriously consider the justice system’s effect on families, children, and communities before making sweeping, and often devastating, cuts to the family justice system.