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"Increasing access to justice for low-income Californians"

June 2016 Newsletter
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During the past year, the Access Commission joined other partners in a concentrated effort to generate new resources to support legal services programs. One of these new resources is funding from federal block grants to support services to crime victims (VOCA grants). Historically, many states have included legal aid programs among the recipients of the funding for the legal work they do for crime victims/survivors. California, however, has not been one of these states. The Access Commission, partnered with the State Bar and the Legal Aid Association of California to educate the state about the range of assistance that legal services organizations provide to crime victims and urged inclusion of legal aid providers as eligible applicants for future grants. As a result of these efforts, VOCA grant opportunities are now open to legal aid providers. California has released over $30 million in new grant opportunities available to legal aid to support legal assistance for crime victims. Recently, Lisa Foster, Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Access to Justice, recognized the success and valuable work of the Access Commission in her keynote address during the 2016 Equal Justice Conference. 
As we go forward, the Access Commission will continue to focus on securing stable funding for legal service providers so that they have adequate resources to serve the legal needs of low-income Californians.


The Access Commission, in partnership with the State Bar, and the Legal Aid Association of California launched a campaign this year to increase the Equal Access Fund. The EAF was established in 1999 as a $10 million fund for legal services programs serving low-income Californians, seniors, and persons with developmental disabilities.
Access Commissioners met with key legislators, testified at hearings, wrote letters, and recruited others to join the call for an increase. On June 10, 2016, the Legislative Budget Conference Committee approved a one-time $5 million funding increase to the EAF. We are grateful to all the supporters from business, faith organizations, law firms, law schools, and others who joined the campaign to secure this critical funding for legal services.
While this is a terrific step in the right direction, California remains out of step with states across the country. New York, with only about half of the population of California, for example, provides $85 million a year to support legal services. The Access Commission will continue to work to increase state support for legal services for its most vulnerable residents.


California boasts the highest percentage of non-English speaking residents in the United States. Anyone who has attended a small claims court session in California likely understands the impact of this reality on matters affecting access to justice. It is not uncommon for bilingual visitors sitting in the gallery of a small claims courtroom to be pressed into service as unpaid, volunteer interpreters. But thanks to recent action by the Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee (PCLC) of the Judicial Council of California, much needed changes to remedy this shortcoming in access to justice are in the works.
Back in January 2015, the Judicial Council of California adopted the Strategic Plan for Language Access for the California Courts. This Plan provides a comprehensive set of recommendations to help create a branch-wide approach to providing language access services to court users, while accommodating each court's individualized need for flexibility in implementing the plan recommendations. Current law states that qualified interpreters "should" be provided, at no cost, in all court proceedings, regardless of a party's income level. If a court system lacks sufficient funding, current law sets forth an order of priority for courts to follow in deploying interpreters. Small claims matters currently reside at the bottom of the list.
In early April, the PCLC approved for public comment two Judicial Council recommendations to amend California law to make small claims interpreters mandatory. The first proposal would amend Government Code section 68560.5(a) to include small claims proceedings in the definition of court proceedings for which qualified interpreters "must" be provided. The second proposal would amend Code of Civil Procedure section 116.550 (dealing with small claims actions) to reflect that interpreters in small claims cases should, as with other matters, be certified or registered, or provisionally qualified where a credentialed interpreter is not available.
The prospect of mandatory interpretation in small claims cases, coupled with the availability of essential funding to pay for qualified interpreters, represents a critical expansion in access to justice for California residents with limited English skills.
Public comments relating to the proposed amendments to Government Code section 68560.5(a) and Code of Civil Procedure section 116.550 may be made, on or before June 14, 2016, by submission to invitations@jud.ca.gov.

Despite being a co-equal branch of government, California's judiciary receives only 1.4% of total funds disbursed from the State's General Fund. The good news is that things are improving, slowly but steadily, with this year's proposed budget.
Our Chief Justice, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, recently applauded the Governor's proposed 2016-2017 budget. "We welcome the Governor's proposed budget for the judicial branch as it would provide $146.3 million in crucial new funding for our courts. Much of the new funding would be focused on innovations to benefit court users at all levels of our court system. The proposed budget reflects a steady but cautious new investment in the judicial branch since fiscal year 2012-2013." The Chief Justice noted that the Governor's proposed budget "would help make courts more accessible, efficient, and equitable for court users."
Yet the court system remains in crisis, due to low funding levels. Consider that the recently released budget for 2016-2017, with a proposed court funding level of $3.63 billion, actually provides less money to the judiciary than was available almost ten years ago, in 2007-2008, when the actual budget reached $3.72 billion. (See Governor's Budget Summary 2016-2017 at p. 117.)
A snapshot of the state's largest court system, in Los Angeles County, illustrates both the persisting budgetary difficulties, and the slow improvement in funding and access to justice. Currently, the Los Angeles Superior Court is funded at less than 70% of its workload-based funding need. This funding gap limits necessary workforce expansion to fill basic needs, including staff to expand access to justice, reduce delays and backlogs by restoring full-service courtrooms, and bring back court-employed court reporters. (Unlike many court systems, Los Angeles County continues to require civil litigants to provide, and pay for, their own court reporters.)
But the funding gap in Los Angeles has decreased since 2013, from 45% to 31%. This has enabled the Los Angeles Superior Court to implement a traffic ticket/infraction amnesty program; to greatly expand interpreter services in juvenile dependency, elder and dependent abuse, unlawful detainers, domestic violence, probate/conservatorship and guardianship matters, civil harassment, family law and small claims cases; to begin replacement of the outdated case management systems, with an anticipated roll-out date of September 2017; and to create efficiencies with the implementation of paperless traffic courtrooms, online self-scheduling of hearings in civil cases, reduced wait time for mediations and child custody evaluations in family law departments, and other improvements.
Increasing access to justice for all Californians presents a continuing challenge to our judiciary. The California Commission on Access to Justice joins with our Chief Justice in applauding the recent proposed increase in funding for the judicial branch, which represents a step in the right direction for attaining our society's essential aspiration of equal justice for all.


The Access to Justice Commission had a productive year in 2015 under the leadership of Chair, Hon. Mark Juhas of the Los Angeles Superior Court, and Vice-Chair, Joanne Caruso of Jacobs Engineering Group and as a result of the dedicated work of numerous volunteers. The Commission worked on a range of projects to increase access to justice for low and moderate income Californians. The Commission's 2015 Annual Report is available Here.  

The California Commission on Access to Justice recently welcomed three new members:e this p
Amos Hartston

Amos Hartston is currently a Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Justice (DOJ). Prior to joining DOJ, he worked as Chief Counsel and Director of Legal Services for the Inner City Law Center (ICLC) where he oversaw all of ICLC's legal projects, including Housing Litigation, Homelessness Prevention, and the Homeless Veterans Project as well as the Shriver Housing Project, Housing and Public Benefits advocacy, tenant organizing, and housing policy.  
Lisa Pruitt

Lisa Pruitt is currently a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. As a professor, she studies and writes about rural poverty in relation to law, legal rights, and legal consciousness. Before joining the UC Davis law faculty in 1999, she worked abroad for almost a decade in settings ranging from international organizations to private practice.

Lorena Slomanson

Lorena Slomanson is currently a Staff Attorney with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego's Pro Bono Program. Prior to entering the field of public interest law, she was involved in a diverse civil litigation practice focusing on personal injury and consumer protection. Ms. Slomanson serves on the San Diego Human Relations Commission, the County Board of Trustees for the San Diego Law Library and the American Bar Association on Homelessness and Poverty.

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