In the past few years, we’ve seen court ADR programs being cut around the country as courts and legislatures balance their dwindling budgets. The latest rumors of closure come from California where, some blogs have reported, mediation programs will be cut across the board in Los Angeles County in June. While the stories out of California appear to be a little more complicated than first reported, the closures throughout the country, combined with cuts to other court services (as they would be in Los Angeles County), bring up two causes of concern: privatization of justice and access to justice.
In Los Angeles County, the court has advised that courthouses will be closed, staffs reduced and services cut back. All of this makes it more difficult for litigants to access the services they need and will most likely extend the time it takes to resolve a case. Los Angeles County also has a mature mediation culture. Due to longstanding practice, lawyers and sophisticated parties are knowledgeable about and experienced with mediation. This may mean that those who could afford to would simply pay for a simpler, faster process. However, without the option of free court mediation, those who couldn’t afford private services might be relegated to a court system that is less accessible and less capable of assisting them. There would be, in essence, a two-tiered system, with one segment of the population having multiple options available to them and another having little choice. Those with limited means wouldn’t have the opportunity to mediate, despite its great value to parties, and would also face delayed and reduced access to justice overall.
I remember a judge once saying that he didn’t like the idea of offering mediation to poor and low-income parties because he didn’t want to relegate them to “second-class justice.” This sentiment could now possibly be turned on its head. When court-related mediation programs are slashed, mediation is limited to those who can afford it. But when programs are slashed along with other court services, access to justice itself becomes problematic for any but those financially able to seek private means to resolve their issues.
Tags: access to justice