Need a divorce? Determined to resolve a child custody dispute? Anxious to get a security deposit back or settle a dispute with a contractor through small claims court?
Expect longer waits in courthouses from Palo Alto to Morgan Hill starting later this summer, a top Santa Clara County court official warned Thursday.
"Life just became harder for people who need to use our courts," Presiding Judge Brian C. Walsh said. "The harm to the public's access to justice will be as pronounced as it is unavoidable."
Although the state budget approved by the Legislature and expected to be signed Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown boosts overall funding for the entire court system by more than $188 million, it stops well short of fully restoring the more than $1 billion that was slashed since 2008.
Until now, Santa Clara County had been able to reduce the impact by spending its reserve funds and cutting 28 percent of its staff through attrition. Meanwhile, other branches that were less well-positioned had it worse, including Contra Costa County, which no longer provides court reporters in family, civil or probate cases, forcing people to pay for their own. Statewide, 51 courthouses have closed and courts in 30 counties have reduced public service hours.
It was unclear Thursday the extent to which those services will be restored. Statewide, trial court operations needed $262 million, but got only $129 million, Walsh said.
For instance, in San Mateo County, court CEO John Fitton said he expects to get about $700,000 to $800,000 more than last fiscal year, enabling him to consider adding back about five or six positions after cutting 130 jobs in the past six years. The hires might allow him to keep the clerk's office open until 2 p.m. on Fridays. Because of the cutbacks, that office is now open only until 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday and noon on Friday.
The restoration "is like someone takes $100 from you and gives you back $16, and says, 'we're square,'" Fitton said, noting that employee costs have gone up since the cuts began in 2008.
Santa Clara County Superior Court estimates it will face a $6 million cutback, under a recently revised allocation formula that divvies up funds among the 58 county branch courts based on workload and need.
Walsh said no one will be laid off but more positions will be eliminated through attrition.
"Our court will be forced to close courtrooms, cut resources in our Self-Help Centers and in Family Court mediations and reduce services in the Clerk's Office -- where lines will be longer and delays in filing judgments will be increased," Walsh said.
The court is examining a number of options, including closing the small claims court in Palo Alto. The exact changes will be announced later this summer after being put to a vote by the bench's 79 judges.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.