Santa Monica Courthouse (File by Daniel Archuleta)
Santa Monica Courthouse (File by Daniel Archuleta)

LOS ANGELES — A coalition of nonprofits representing the poor and disabled filed suit against the Los Angeles Superior Court system over a proposed plan to cut costs that they say will only restrict the ability of renters to protect their housing.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center on Law & Poverty, Disability Rights Legal Center and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County called for the courts to put the brakes on a series of consolidations that would remove eviction services from neighborhood courthouses, placing them in five regional “hubs,” one of which is Santa Monica.

The consolidations, which the court announced formally last week and are scheduled to begin Monday, put an extreme burden on low-income and disabled clients who either can’t travel or do not have access to transportation to get over 30 miles to a courthouse, according to the suit.

Court officials say that they need to cut up to $85 million from the budget to account for $1 billion in cuts suffered by the California courts system in the last five years, but the firms say officials need to find another way, and preferably get some community input, which the current plan lacks.

“The elimination of unlawful detainer hearings in neighborhood courthouses near low-income minority communities and individuals with disabilities effectively shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county’s most vulnerable residents,” the suit reads.

That’s particularly damaging in the case of eviction cases, where the tenant must appear in person to protect their housing, said Barbara Schultz, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

“If you don’t show up at the trial, you lose,” Schultz said, succinctly.

In some cases, that means a 30-mile trip involving multiple buses and over two hours to get to court.

The suit is filed on behalf of two individuals — Brenda Miles, of Northridge, and Dane Sullivan, of North Hills — and four nonprofits that represent low-income and disabled clients.

Miles has a severe spinal injury, and does not travel outside of her apartment except for medical reasons. She never leaves the San Fernando Valley. Miles recently received an eviction notice from her landlord based on her having a companion animal.

If the consolidations go through, Miles will have to travel to Pasadena, nearly 30 miles away, to defend her housing rather than Chatsworth, which is only 6.

Sullivan is wheelchair bound and requires 24-hour care. He also received an eviction notice, but rather than travel 7 miles to his local court, he would have to venture 26 miles.

He cannot travel more than one hour at a time because of his disability, and one of his caretakers cannot drive on the freeway.

These people will see the doors of justice close in their faces because they can’t make it to the courthouse, according to the suit.

“Right now, there are 26 neighborhood courthouses that hear evictions, and there’s a 46 percent default rate,” Schultz said. “Imagine when they have to travel 30 miles on multiple buses to get to court. We believe the default rate will skyrocket.”

Also at question is whether or not the new “hubs” will be able to handle the influx of cases.

Santa Monica saw 4,600 eviction cases in the 2011 fiscal year. That would increase to roughly 17,000 under the new plan, Schultz said, and there’s only one window today in which you can file eviction paperwork.

The law firms involved hope to get word from the courts soon on a temporary restraining order that would put a stop to the consolidation plan, which is set to take effect Monday, March 18.

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