Several legal services organizations said they plan to sue the Los Angeles Superior Court today to force it to drop plans to stop hearing eviction cases in dozens of courtrooms, arguing that cost-cutting move would be devastating to poor and disabled tenants trying to save their homes.
Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the Disability Rights Legal Center said the Superior Court's plans to slash the number of courtrooms hearing eviction cases from 26 to five would force tenants to travel for several hours to fight for their rights, and many of them cannot make that journey.
"These changes will leave countless individuals and families without access to justice in cases where basic human needs are at stake," said Neal Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services.
"For these families - many of whom depend on public transport - the prospect of traveling so far outside their own community to have their day in court is tantamount to having the door to justice slammed in their face," he added.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Coalition For Economic Survival, People Organized for Westside Renewal, Union de Vecinos and the Independent Living Center of Southern California.
The Superior Court's "consolidation plan," slated for implementation March 18, is intended to close a projected $56 million to $85 million budget deficit in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
Aside from closing or "repurposing" 10 courthouses - including Malibu, West Los Angeles, Whittier and Pomona North - the Superior Court also plans to have the remaining courthouses handle only certain cases.
Currently, there are 26 courthouses handling the 70,000 unlawful detainers - eviction cases - and 60,000 small claims that go through the Superior Court each year.
If the consolidation plan goes through, unlawful detainers would be heard in only five courthouses, and small claims in six courthouses.
Maria Palomares, a lawyer with Neighborhood Legal Services, said tenants at risk of being kicked out their homes in the San Fernando Valley currently go to courtrooms in Van Nuys and Chatsworth. The consolidation plan would mean new cases would instead have to be heard in Santa Monica and Pasadena - 30 miles away.
Palomares said that for many of her clients having to make that trip is not just inconvenient but impossible. She noted many of them are poor, disabled, or homeless, and those with jobs cannot afford to skip work to spend hours commuting to the courthouse, and do not have child care options.
"The reality is that people are not going to be able to get there, given the other considerations of mental health, language access, transportation, etc.," Palomares said. "What this will do is effectively shut the court doors for the most vulnerable people."
Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn acknowledged the consolidation plan would be a hardship but contended it was unavoidable after several years of budget cuts.
"Sadly, our court leaders are very aware of the fact that people are going to be disadvantaged by the changes, but we have no choice," she said. "We're just finally at the point where we're really cutting into the bone now."
"There's no discretionary area left to cut - it's only the real bedrock of the court services," Hearn added.
Rocio Soto and her family are fighting eviction from their home in Winnetka and expect to go to trial in Van Nuys later this month.
She said if the consolidation were already in effect, she would be certain to lose the case because her six witnesses cannot make the journey to Santa Monica for the usual 8:30 a.m. court appearance, as they have jobs and children to care for, and lack transportation.
"I just ask the Lord that this consolidation not go through, that these changes not happen, that we continue to have the court in the San Fernando Valley because we need it," she said.