ALAMEDA – Despite increasing demand for services, some of California’s public law libraries may soon be forced to close or downsize due to inflation in operating costs and dwindling funds.
The sole source of funding for law libraries is superior court “first paper” filing fees applied when initiating or responding to civil, family law or probate actions, as well as certain small claims. Fees range by county from approximately $30 to $50.
A 2007 Senate bill placed a moratorium on fee hikes. Since then, the amount of fees courts collect for libraries fell 33 percent, while the cost of legal materials supplied to libraries rose 60 percent.
A Senate bill drafted last year by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) would have allowed law libraries to narrow their funding gap with tax revenues from California’s general fund, but no state legislator was willing to sponsor the proposal.
“The problem we face is that who wants to pay more fees or taxes?” Alameda County Law Library Director Mark Estes told the Northern California Record. “So we’re in that rock and hard spot in that we need to change how we’re funded, and we haven’t really figured out a way that makes it work for everybody.”
The issue is not one California can ignore. The state has a 125-year-old mandate to provide each of its 58 counties a public law library administered locally for use by all residents.
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of legal library users are not legal professionals, Estes said. A quarter of those people use law library resources to research starting a business or transferring property. Other common interests include wills, trusts, evictions and bankruptcy.
Perhaps the most valuable among law library resources are law librarians, who provide a community service by helping library visitors navigate complex legal materials and decipher legalese free of charge. Librarians’ services are most in demand in smaller, poorer counties, which tend to collect fewer filing fees and fall short of funds to adequately compensate them for their services.
The challenge of funding county libraries stems from and is compounded by three things, Estes said: a decrease in the number of court filings, an increase in the number of fee waivers and an increase in the jurisdictional amount for small claims.
He estimates the number of lawsuits filed across the state has dropped by approximately 30 percent for two reasons.
“Some suggest or hypothesize that the reason the number of suits are down is because of the budget crisis with the courts, which made it more difficult, more time consuming for somebody to file a lawsuit," Estes said. "If your case isn’t going to be heard for years and years and years, you may decide not to sue."
The other reason is mandatory arbitration.
“So a situation where once somebody might sue, now they’ve got to go to arbitration,” he said. “When it goes to arbitration, county law libraries don’t get any money.”
Courts will waive fees for those who claim not to have enough money.
“We’re supposed to get money if the prevailing party collects more than $500 and they had their fee waived, but a lot of times they don’t collect more than $500, so we don’t get any money,” Estes said, adding that government agencies filing a suit also do not have to pay the filing fee.
Four years ago, the jurisdictional amount for small claims cases was raised, meaning a greater number of cases that could be heard in small claims court increased. Filing fees are much lower for small claims. Alameda Law Library, for example, receives just a $2 fee for a small claims filing rather than its standard fee of $37.
“It was a very laudable, good, social policy goal,” he said. “By raising the maximum amount you could sue for in small claims court, where no lawyers are allowed, it made it easier for people to have access to justice. But in doing so, there was no adjustment for what would happen to county law libraries.”
The increase in cases relegated to lower courts resulted in increased demand for the services of law libraries and their librarians provide.
“They need help preparing their lawsuit and to appear properly before the judge so that they don’t take a lot of the judge’s time just going the wrong way, so they need to come to the law library,” Estes said.
“The law library has resources, books, databases and, most importantly, people that will help that self-represented litigant understand what they need to do. But we’re not getting any more money for that extra time that we need to spend with them to help them educate themselves.”
Simply raising the cap on filing fees, however, will not remedy the problem, he said, because increased fees would likely result in a decrease in the number of lawsuits filed and an increase the number of fee waivers issued.
“The better solution, I think, is an approach somewhat like is applied to the courts," Estes said. "They get some money from filing fees – from user fees, if you will – and they get some money directly from the general fund because people recognize the judiciary is an essential part of government."
Either way, Estes said the law library is essential.
“You can’t have a democracy without a judicial branch," Estes said. "The law library plays a key role in making the branch run a little bit smoother for all the people who interact with the courts and who don’t use a lawyer, and you know that that’s lots and lots of people.”