People enter the Santa Monica Courthouse on Monday. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
People enter the Santa Monica Courthouse on Monday. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SM COURTHOUSE — In one week’s time, the Los Angeles Superior Court system will begin a complicated restructuring process that will move many normal court functions from the Santa Monica Courthouse to Downtown Los Angeles.

Personal injury cases and civil cases for plaintiffs seeking less than $25,000 in damages will move from Santa Monica to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown L.A., and other courts will become “hubs” for specific types of cases.

Santa Monica will become one of five hubs for eviction and unlawful detainer cases, but locals who wish to file a small claims case will have to travel to Inglewood to do so. Those with debt issues may go as far as Norwalk or Chatsworth.

While those changes will take effect March 18, some programs began the process of closing their doors Monday.

The Alternate Dispute Resolution Department, an entity that helps individuals in civil cases settle before they go to trial, stopped taking referrals as of Monday, according to court officials.

It will officially shutter offices in Santa Monica and six other courts between May 1 and May 31. At least eight other locations will lose their mediation services a month earlier.

The announcements, which came down from the courts last week, represent the first in what promises to be several rounds of releases from the Los Angeles Superior Court system to add detail to a November declaration that the courts would be cutting up to $85 million from the budget, said Mary Hearn, the public information officer for the courts.

Already, attorneys are raising hue and cry about the potential consequences of such cuts, including increased travel time for litigants, costs to businesses and extended wait times in already-packed court calendars.

Karla Barrow, the managing attorney for the Santa Monica office of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), noted that the impacts would be particularly great on those least able to recover — the poor, those with unstable housing and the disabled.

“It’s a burden for people who don’t have income and education restrictions. It’s overwhelming for those who do,” Barrow said.

The organization is most concerned about its clients with physical disabilities, who may have difficulty getting to more distant courthouses. Some tenants fighting eviction may have to travel up to 32 miles to Santa Monica or one of the other four hubs to defend their housing.

Debtors attempting to deal with collections below $25,000 will have to travel up to 67 miles to either Chatsworth or Norwalk, the only two locations that will accept such cases.

“A Santa Monica resident wishing to arrive in Chatsworth by 8:30 a.m. will have to catch a bus no later than 5:45 a.m., transfer twice, and must be able to walk a half mile in less than 25 minutes in order to arrive timely at the courthouse,” reads an e-mail from LAFLA.

That’s a difficult journey for the able-bodied, and raises further concerns for those who already have access issues, Barrow said.

The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office will also face some challenges as a result of the changes.

The office deals with as many as 80 personal injury cases for large sums each year, which will involve more travel to Downtown L.A., said Jeanette Schachtner, the chief deputy city attorney in Santa Monica.

That could make trials more difficult because many of the witnesses and employees involved typically live or work in Santa Monica and may find it difficult to make it to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Schachtner said.

It remains unclear exactly how much of the problem will be solved by the restructuring.

“I don’t have a dollar figure associated with the changes announced last week,” Hearn said. “We’ll be moving people around, eliminating positions and people, and that will take us down to the number we need to hit.”

That lack of specificity troubles David Sapp, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

He finds the process by which the court system arrived at these consolidations opaque, and can find no accounting of how the proposed changes will result in savings.

“Courts have adopted very strong language to take to task executive and legislative bodies that are not transparent in how they do business, but decisions are being made with zero information about why they are necessary,” Sapp said.

There could be hidden costs to courthouse consolidation, but it’s hard to say if those have been considered because the process has been difficult to decipher.

“Without any transparency, there’s frankly a lot of suspicion and doubt about whether it will work out,” Sapp said.

The cuts have had a brutal impact on the state’s courts, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the state legislature in her State of the Judiciary speech Monday afternoon.

“We can never know how many people, due to closures and delays, will not believe justice is for them,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

According to a January release by the courts, the judicial branch has experienced $535 million in permanent, ongoing reductions over the last five fiscal years, and last year alone the state General Fund support for the judicial branch was reduced by $544 million.

“No amount of efficiencies that we can implement will ever make up for a $1 billion cut,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

She also warned against becoming a “user-fee-supported institution” by shifting the costs onto those who file cases. Court fees for case filings have risen as much as $115 in some situations, and some tickets — like running a red light or speeding between 1 and 15 miles per hour over the posted limit — have gone up by a similar amount.

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