When Civil Courts Close

August 13, 2023

This article is my opinion, about the recent civil court closings that have already happened, or will soon happen in California, and possibly other states.

Historically, courts have raised their fees to cover the costs of labor and other expenses. While annoying, that is a rational way to increase their revenue.

Historically, courts have trimmed their staff or have lowered wages. That is distasteful, but is also a rational way to increase their revenue.

Closing civil courts completely, or to add draconian delays to civil court procedures, is not rational. Courts are not parks or libraries. Court access is required by law, and required for society to function properly. Without timely performance from civil courts, some people may operate outside the courts, which is probably not good for society.

The courts of San Francisco, California have cut so many of their employees, that it will take many more hours to do anything (paying a traffic ticket, getting a writ, recording a court document) in person. It is also estimated that someday it will take up to 18 months to finalize a divorce, and up to 5 years for a lawsuit to go to trial.

In California, it is not only San Francisco County that has already cut, or is planning to soon make drastic cuts to civil courts. The San Joaquin County Superior Court is closing its Tracy branch courthouse at 475 East 10th Street in Tracy, and at least one other Lodi courthouse at 315 West Elm Street.

Amazingly, at one time, San Joaquin County considered closing their small claims court. Imagine a County where there was perhaps no way to sue, collect, or satisfy a small claims court judgment?

With civil court delays, some judgments may be renewed as fast as the law allows, to allow for delays. Some will settle their problems out of court, even problems that needed to be settled in court. Lawyers will be paid to wait in line, which is not an optimum use of their time. Some may stop using the civil courts.

Stopping, or severely limiting civil courts might affect society. Time is always of value. Waiting 5 years for a lawsuit to go to trial would be like waiting two hours for a dial tone, when you tried to use your phone. When something cannot be used on a timely basis, it cannot always be used.

Because the constitution guarantees speedy trials, criminal courts will not be affected very much. I think the civil branch of the courts is also very important. Cutting civil courts might increase the load on the criminal courts.

If things are bad, I think downsizing or charging more, is the right thing to try first. Stopping a vital civil service should be done only as a last resort. It is better to double the fees, than to make people spend more time waiting, or stopping required services.

I am not a lawyer (or an expert in more than a few fields). That said, I think there is a relationship between civil and criminal law. When laws change, or stop being enforced on one side – it might affect the other side.

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