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Hearing on Access to Justice Crisis

 The Access to Justice Crisis Facing California Families
An Informational Hearing of the Assembly Judiciary Committee

February 12, 2013
"Access to the courts for unrepresented, low income communities must be prioritized and protected."
Ana Maria Garcia, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County
The California State Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing to focus on the effects of court and legal services budget cuts over the past few years. Three attorneys from LAAC member programs testified at the hearing, two of whom testified on behalf of LAAC, and LAAC Interim Executive Director Salena Copeland attended the hearing. Materials for the hearing included information about IOLTA funding cuts, highlighting the 10% IOLTA cuts for FY1314 and predicting cuts as severe as 40% for FY1415 (page 18 of the materials). The hearing was recorded and archived for future viewing.

Tulin Acikalin, currently Managing Attorney of two Bay Area Legal Aid regional offices and former member of the Elkins Family Law Task Force, testified about the public's trust in a accessible court system. She compared closing courthouses to closing firehouses, asking the Assembly Judiciary Committee members to imagine their homes on fire, calling 911 only to hear, "Due to budget cuts, we are no longer answering calls in person. The firehouse nearest you is closed; the next closest truck is one hour away. Press 1 to dispatch this truck." Judges and court staff from around the state testified about court closers causing people to have to travel as much as three hours one-way to reach a courthouse. Ms. Acikalin argued that those situations are not acceptable in a "just" court system. Bay Area Legal Aid has shared many resources in the past about the crisis in legal aid funding.
Catherine Blakemore, Executive Director of Disability Rights California, testified about the statewide legal services funding crisis. Ms. Blakemore is a Commissioner on the California Commission on Access to Justice and is co-chair of the Campaign for Justice. In her testimony, Ms. Blakemore stressed that legal services attorneys step in before many cases head to court, preserving rights for the most vulnerable Californians. She also shared case studies where her clients were able to stay in their homes only because of the intervention of an attorney. When the Committee Chair, Assemblymember Wieckowski, who recently was awarded a "Hero of Justice" award by LAAC, asked her "What's the number? How much money would legal services need?" she responded that doubling 2007 IOLTA funding of $20 million to $40 million would be a start, especially compared to the current IOLTA revenue low of $4.5 million, but that amount would still not address the total need. The committee materials for the hearing estimated the amount of money needed to close the justice gap to be $400 million.

Ana Maria Garcia, 2011 recipient of a LAAC Family Law Award for her work as a supervising attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles Countytestified about the nine self-help centers that NLSLA operates, serving 10,500 litigants per month. Ms. Garcia urged the legislature to support standards and priorities for courts facing budget limitations. She recommended the following standards: First, access to the courts for unrepresented, low income communities must be prioritized and protected. Second, courts considering changes in hearing locations (moving cases to other geographic locations) must hold a public community meeting so those impacted have an opportunity to voice their views and concerns. Third, courts have an obligation to demonstrate the financial need for forcing unrepresented litigants to travel greater distances to access the court.
The February 12, 2013 hearing's focus on legal aid funding was closely related to an earlier Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing on April 20, 2010 on legal aid funding. OneJustice held a series of four public hearings in 2011 as well with the partnership of the State Bar of California, the California Commission on Access to Justice, and CalChamber.