Absence of Court Reporters in Family Law Courts = Access to Justice Denied

By Ana Fatima Costa, RPR, CSR

California courts’ ongoing funding crisis is failing those most vulnerable.

Since 2009, the nation’s largest judicial branch has experienced budget cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars, resulting in drastically reduced court staffing and services in most of California’s 58 counties.

Even as caseloads are increasing, significant delays in adjudication of pending litigation continue. Hearing dates are extended into the future, and matters are delayed, reducing public services to residents.

California’s Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California courts, provided this report through its Public Access to Judicial Administrative Records (PAJAR) team:

  • 45 courthouses and 191 courtrooms remain closed.
  • Approximately 2.1 million Californians no longer have access to courts in their communities.

Per PAJAR, the above estimate does not include residents who are affected by reduced services, needed to commute to now-closed courts from surrounding communities, nor those in large urban areas facing courtroom closures.

Nowhere has the lack of services been felt more than in California’s Family Law courts, where the absence of court reporters to provide accurate transcriptions of proceedings has resulted in denied access to justice for families and children, especially where domestic violence or child abuse is involved.

PAJAR adds:

“As of February 2016 [the most recent data], 15 courts provided court reporters in ALL family law cases; 22 courts provided court reporters in SOME family law cases; 16 courts DID NOT PROVIDE ANY court reporters in family law cases; and 5 courts did not respond to the survey: Amador, Imperial, Kings, Los Angeles and Marin.”

In a recent letter to the Governor before the 2017-2018 budget was approved, California Protective Parents Association wrote:

“Our organization assists non-abusive parents in custody disputes when their children disclose abuse. The family court system has not been responsive to these children and often removes them from their non-abusive parents and places them at risk with their abusive parents.

Our research shows that abusers are able to afford attorneys, while 98% of the safe parents are self-represented when they lose custody of their children and do not have the resources to pay for court reporters and transcripts.

This results in dreadful due process violations. If there is no record of the hearing, there can be no valid appeal. If there is no appeal, there is no check on poor or risky decisions at the trial court level. Furthermore, there is no way to submit a proper complaint about a judge to the Commission on Judicial Performance if there is no official record of the hearing.”

Unfortunately, the decision by some of California’s presiding judges and court executive officers to lay off court reporters in family law courts due to the budget cuts has created a two-tiered system of justice:  Families who can afford to pay, and those who cannot.

It is shameful that California – ordinarily a trailblazer for the nation – continues to fail to approve funding to reinstate court reporters in ALL family law courts to ensure access to justice for all, particularly its most vulnerable residents.

Ana Fatima Costa, RPR, CSR, the Paralegal Section’s Marketing Coordinator, utilizes her expertise as a former court reporter to educate the legal community about reporters’ crucial role as impartial guardians of the record. Contact her at ana@anafatimacosta.com