Cuts To San Diego County Courts Are Affecting Families
December 3, 2012 1:15 p.m.
Related Story: Cuts To San Diego County Courts Are Affecting Families
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tijuana is jubilant today as its underdog Xolos soccer team is a Mexican Premier league champion. The team won a two nothing victory in Mexico City last night. Listen to the latest news through today here on KPBS. Our top story on Midday Edition is the weekend meeting held by San Diego Family Court judges and attorneys about concerns over budget cuts as we've been reporting since last summer budgets approved by California lawmakers have hit the state court system very hard over 500 million was sliced from California courts. In San Diego that is translated to $14 million less it is part of a three-year budget trimming plan which cuts a total of 21% from San Diego Court budgets. Personnel layoffs and services and courtrooms are primarily affecting civil courts and therefore most Family Court cases. I'd like to introduce my guest Shawn Weber. He is a family law attorney with Brave Weber and Mack, the family law group in San Diego and Shawn welcome to the program.
SHAWN WEBER: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As I understand it the weekend meeting was one of a series of discussions between family law attorneys and judges. I wonder if we can start out by having you, Shawn, characterize what you see is overall state of the Family Court system.
SHAWN WEBER: Sure. What we are facing right now is a system where because there is not the budget, we are seeing a tremendous cut and personnel in what was already a stressed family law system. They were already overwhelmed with a tremendous amount of family law findings and folks trying to get through their divorce or custody or child support case. Things were already slow. The wheels of justice already turn slow. Now they are already slower and we are simply having to adapt to that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you have the meetings with the judges this is basically just sort of a complete session, or what is it that you discuss?
SHAWN WEBER: I want to clarify what the meeting is produced on some meeting on Mount Olympus. What it is is every year the certified family Law specialist in San Diego have a seminar for attorneys and the continuing education opportunity at the beginning of the session typically the judges will present the state of the court and we have an opportunity to share what the latest news was at this particular meeting was important to a lot of us because we wanted to hear what the status the court was because we knew there were some changes coming and we learned about what if the changes are for Family Court.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what are the changes?
SHAWN WEBER: First of all the one that's got the attorneys most concerned is the fact that for matters that are greater than 40 min. in Family Court we are not going to be having court reporters in the room. So if you remember if you think of a court system where you typically have the stenographer sector tapping only keeping a record of what's going on that's not going to be available for a matter greater than 40 min. For less than 40 min. and forth domestic violence cases the court reporters will still be available. But they will not be available for the longer cases. One interesting fact that I learned which is on the frequently asked questions section on the court's website is one of the questions asked was will the waivers apply to the court reporter situation if you have indigent clients are parties that do not have the wherewithal to pay a court reporter, will they have a fee waiver for that and the answer is no. So there is kind of and access to the courts issue because if you think about it, the court record is very important. To a person's ability to appeal. And a lot of what we attorneys do in court as lawyers is to make sure we are preserving the record. For the record this happen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So let me clarify what you are saying for any matters of for 40 min. that are not domestic violence cases in Family Court there will be no paid for, no court reporter paid for by the state. You can bring in your own court reporter to take a transcript of what has happened. Is, and therefore if you cannot pay a court reporter is there no transcript?
SHAWN WEBER: There is no record. Only the minute order, which is a very, one page kind of thing where the clerk is checking boxes and filling in blanks but there's no actual record of what's being said.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't it helpful for the court to have a record like that let alone the participants in a particular case?
SHAWN WEBER: Absolutely. And if you look at particularly on appeal going to appeal, the appellate court really relies on what happens in the transcript. Also if we have a confusion, we attorneys have confusion about what is the actual order sometimes in order is announced and we are given the responsibility of actually preparing a written order for the court. If there's a question about what is in the order you order the transcript and look at the transcript and see what it says and there's no question but now it might be an issue if we haven't been able to pay for a court reporter to be in the room.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just to finish of the concept of the no court reporter how will that change how you practice? Are you going to routinely higher court reporters not to accompany you on these cases?
SHAWN WEBER: I will and it will be an added expense to my clients essentially so in addition to paint my exorbitant fee as an attorney they are also going to have to pay the cost of the transcriptionist because they really, the clients really need that person keeping a record in the courtroom.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Shawn Weber who is a family law attorney here in San Diego and we are talking about changes imposed on family law courts and most civil courts in San Diego because of state budget cuts. Let me just be clear what kind of cases are family handled by Family Court, Sean?
SHAWN WEBER: What you have in Family Court our divorce cases, adoption issues have been Family Court, child support, spousal support, sometimes they call them alimony, custody cases, paternity actions we now call them petition to establish a parental relationship, those kinds of things happen, and also domestic partnerships can be done in Family Court.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Any criminal cases?
SHAWN WEBER: Criminal cases are not done in Family Court.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right and most of the cuts are geared toward civil court, is that correct?
SHAWN WEBER: That is true.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Will there be places people can go to have a divorce or custody case heard in San Diego?
SHAWN WEBER: My understanding is there will be fewer departments but I also believe there will be the same number of courthouses that you can go to. My understanding is the actual personnel, the staff is going to be available to push the case through and all the paperwork needs to be pushed by someone and one example is that the judges used to have one independent calendar clerk that would handle their calendar that was their job all day. Now they have to have, two judges per click, per independent calendar clerk. They still have the courtroom clerk but the person handling the calendar now does twice the work. So that is an impact that is going to affect the way we get cases calendared, the way we get them through the court system.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell me what you think this is going to mean to someone who is let's say looking to get child support reviewed, or custody approved. Is it going to be, are we just talking about a longer wait time, or is it that this is going to be more expensive and it's going to be more difficult overall?
SHAWN WEBER: I do think expenses going to be something that is added because there are fees being added for things like continuances that we didn't have before if you ask for a continuance on the case there is a fee and another thing that happens is for custody matters to be heard by a judge you have to go to Family Court services which is an arm of the court to investigate what's going on with a particular family and the person reports back to the judge before it here said, the problem is we have fewer of those FCS counselors available. So it's harder to get an appointment and sets it out longer. So I'm telling my clients when they come in is you need to think about this. Is the Family Court where you want to be to do your divorce or do you want to look at possibly getting one of the options for no court divorce like a mediated divorce or use a mediator or a collaborative divorce where to attorney signed an agreement that says they are not going to go to court. The client signs on the agreement to and you bring other professionals and mental health professionals and financial professionals to keep it out of court and get an amicable settlement between the parties.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's always been an option.
SHAWN WEBER: That's always been an option and what I'm telling people is maybe need to think about that option a little more now because what was already a difficult and arduous process for people could potentially be more difficult. And I don't think the judges are going to be rotated with me if I encourage people to keep cases off of their docket. The judges are usually thrilled when parties, and already have a settlement. The judge doesn't want to get involved. The only time a judge wants to get involved is when people do not agree.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are the downsides to having to make the choice to go to mediation I mean if you have some long-term real problem with a spouse or some long-term real concern about who gets major custody of the children that is not really going to work in mediation, is it?
SHAWN WEBER: I would actually disagree. I would say mediation is a made to order for it. If you think about a litigated divorce it's the adversarial process. In several the parents are changing and now we are talking about making them enemies for life that is a court system that's difficult painful and expensive. What if we change the process and we made it about coming up with a solution for the children, for the family that is less expensive and is more about transitioning the family from married people to single people who have children. That's a better process and you can bring in the same kinds of professionals that you would bring into a court situation it's just now we are not adversarial we are trying to find a solution.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: However there are still many cases in San Diego Family Court. What about the backlog you are talking about? Does that have an impact on taking out a restraining order?
SHAWN WEBER: I don't think so because there are statutory requirements for how quickly a restraining order hearing needs to be set. If a person comes in and they are asking for a temporary restraining order for domestic violence issue the court can set the TRO which would restrain the perpetrator or alleged perpetrator but that person needs to have that damn court within a certain period of time. I believe there will be proper priorities set on domestic violence issues the same as it always has been but again because if there's a custody issue that comes up the domestic violence issue they are still at the mercy of the fact that the courts calendar is impact as far as setting a hearing in the Family Court services mediators are not available or there are not as many of them available to do the work that more of them did before.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know when we did a show about this last September with San Diego Superior Court presiding Judge Danielson, he was saying even though most of these cuts are going to be targeted toward the civil cases that he did see there would be an impact on criminal courts as well. Do you see that happening a joke down sort of effect?
SHAWN WEBER: I don't want to say that I know for sure that would be the case but there's certainly a possibility only have so much personnel and the court system the only have so many judges are commissioners available and they are having to actually turn back and close department so when you only have so many departments that's going to have an impact on the calendar regardless of what matter it is.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now when you say there are cuts to court personnel, what are you hearing from court personnel about the cutbacks? Are they asking for any help, the remaining ones, or the ones that are losing their jobs getting their jobs back?
SHAWN WEBER: I haven't heard about that. I know that with any company that would have a downsizing situation where there's not as much money to go around as there was before they're having to find money under every rock that they can find. It's painful when you have layoffs. It's painful when you have people forced into an early retirement situation and also painful for the people who remained having to do more work than they were before.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have people been asking for any help from the state Bar Association?
SHAWN WEBER: Not that I'm aware.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Has there been any talk about that among attorneys?
SHAWN WEBER: How do you mean? Asking the Bar Association for help as far as---
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Beefing up the court system during this time of financial hardship.
SHAWN WEBER: What I've heard and what my fellow attorneys have said is that this is something we are going to have to figure out this is a problem we are going to face it is also the insurmountable it's something we will have to get through. We do not really know the full impact of it until we are living in which is just starting to happen. And I, you know the answer is want to help, they want to make it happen and want to make it work and they are happy to give suggestions one thing that the attorneys have the ability to do is sit on the conference settlement panel in family law before there is a trial set they said it for mandatory settlement conference which means that an attorney who volunteers from the community sits with no charge for free settlement conference with the parties are to help them reach resolution
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In other words it's talking about this can be settled in a way that does not actually become a litigated case?
SHAWN WEBER: It is still indicated that we've done a lot of work in the court system to get to this point but this is kind of the last stop, last is ditch effort before a trial happens I very much feel like in Family Court it is really important to stay out of the trail because if I have clients who actually get to a trial I feel like I have failed on some level. I need to help people reach a resolution and the settlement conference is one vehicle to do that and they have a very good success rate in the settlement conference panel.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My last question you know when I did speak about this with Judge Danielson earlier in the year he did say this is going to get increasingly bad through the fiscal year 2013 2014, so is this going to be an ongoing and worsening problem in Family Court in civil court in San Diego County?
SHAWN WEBER: I would imagine so. Like any other fiscal issue in the state it is continuing to be a problem and until the fiscal issues are resolved there is only so much money to go around so the courts are being asked to do the same level of work. There is no decrease in filings. The same level of work but with less resources to do it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You seem to be saying the same thing as Judge Danielson I asked him what people can do for this he said stay out of court.
SHAWN WEBER: Stay out of court, finding no court option if you have an attorney some of my colleagues might get mad at you if you have an attorney who is not talking to you about no court options it's time to ask why.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: All right. I've been speaking with family law attorney Shawn Weber thank you very much for coming and speaking with us.
SHAWN WEBER: You bet.