One of the corner stones of our American system of jurisprudence is free and open access to the trial courts and judicial system. The ability of businesses to solve their disputes in an orderly fashion and the predictability of outcomes encourages business to be conducted in our country. The ability of our prosecutors to charge, and our system to try those accused of crimes, helps insure the pubic safety. It is a concept dating back to the Founding Fathers. But that system is in jeopardy throughout our country.
There has never been an overabundance of cash to fund the Courts, but the system has been dramatically worsened as a result of the recession and the resulting decrease in tax revenues. Without adequate sources of funding, it is easy for legislatures to cut the budgets of the judicial branch of the government—the branch that cannot raise taxes.
According to a report of the ABA, a fully funded court system receives 1 to 2% of state or local budgets. Not a significant line item, but one frequently cut. Unfortunately, unlike many other state or local agencies, the largest expense of the judicial system is the cost of personnel. To cut personnel typically translates to reduced services or a longer delay in providing the same services. In order to cope with the loss of revenue, courts around the country have adopted dramatic measures. Some courts in Iowa have closed their clerk’s office one day per week. A recent article about the San Francisco Superior Courts reported that some 40% of employees were going to suffer layoffs and 25 of 63 courtrooms were to be shuttered. Many states have delayed filling judicial vacancies and others have frozen judicial income for inordinately long periods. Others have furloughed clerical staff and others have cut the ability to have a timely jury trial.
The Courts in Georgia have seen a 25% reduction in funding over the last two years. Their current funding represents only 0.89% of the state’s overall budget. That has resulted in criminal cases taking over a year to be resolved and a reduction in court time for civil cases.
Unfortunately, the budget cuts have also come at a time when there has been an increase in need. As a result of the recession, the number of foreclosures, debt collections, and divorce/family law cases has increased dramatically. Florida has seen more than its share of foreclosure cases and has experienced quite long delays in the foreclosure process. This has resulted in many abandoned properties becoming eyesores and further deteriorating the economic value of neighborhoods. The ABA estimated that in Florida alone there had been a $10 billion dollar loss due to quantifiable costs and expenses attributed solely to court delays.
Another factor contributing to the domino effect is the rise in pro se litigants. As the need for legal services increases and the ability to pay for legal services decreases, more parties are choosing to go it alone. This also creates more pressure on the court staff and the judicial system. Funds for the Legal Services Organization have been slashed by Congress this year with the future looking even bleaker. In Indiana, the IOLTA funds have historically been helpful in funding pro bono and indigent legal service providers. Due to the lower interest rates, the funds that used to flow into the coffers from all of our trust accounts has virtually gone away—at a time when the need has risen tremendously. The Indiana Pro Bono Commission is currently weighing its options to deal with the situation on a statewide basis. The only thing for certain is that with fewer funds, the ability to serve the needs of Hoosiers will necessarily be reduced.
Until the current budget for the City of Indianapolis was recently published, it was feared that the Marion County Superior Courts would suffer significant cuts. The Executive Committee of the Superior Courts had been reviewing options how to deal with a smaller budget. Fortunately, according to two members of the Executive Committee, Judges John Hanley and Marc Rothenberg, the budget for the Courts as currently proposed is a flat line—no major reductions, but no more money. This is certainly good news and we applaud the efforts of our leaders from both parties. However with the increased need for services coupled with the increased cost of providing the same level of service, a flat line approach does amount to a budget reduction. Let’s hope that in the process of passing a budget, the City County Council does not negatively modify the flat line approach. I urge the legal community to stay informed and to communicate to our county leadership the importance of access to the courts for both civil and criminal matters.•