SACRAMENTO – Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye addressed changes in California’s civil justice system during her annual address to a joint session of the California Legislature while also praising funding for the courts in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget.

During the March 19 address, Cantil-Sakauye detailed how a panel of attorneys, judges and CEOs spent a year holding public meetings and studying the criminal court bail system before creating 10 recommendations to improve the system.

The chief justice discussed the Futures Commission, which included court users and employees along with judges and attorneys. That panel was tasked with providing recommendations on the courts and income inequality and on how to move the court system into the digital age. The governor proposed funding for three of those recommendations in his budget. 

“I am gratified that the governor’s strong proposed budget for the judicial branch references three of those Futures recommendations,” said Cantil-Sakauye in the speech. “The first is $19 million to expand self-represented litigant services for those who come to court without an attorney.” 

She noted that some 4 million Californians go unrepresented in court, including a large percentage of civil litigants. Cantil-Sakauye pointed out the need for self-help in the court system, saying California’s program helps about 1 million people annually.

The second recommendation funding was in the budget for a proposed tech-based traffic system. The governor set aside $3.4 million dollars for this initiative that would decriminalize minor traffic violations and allow citizens to pay tickets online.

The governor’s budget also proposed $4 million in funding for language access in civil cases.

The chief justice also praised the budget proposal’s funding of $123 million for trial courts and said that budgeting will help civil courts recover services that were cut during the Great Recession. 

“I know everyone in this room is committed to providing a timely, fair and accessible day in court for our constituents,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “This money will provide an opportunity for courts to help and resolve cases in a timelier manner in the civil arena.”

Julie Griffiths of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse also praised the governor’s court funding. 

“It is great news that the governor added additional funds to help with the overburdened trial courts in California,” she told the Northern California Record. “The combination of an under-funded court system with a large number of frivolous claims keeps honest litigants from seeing their day in court.”

Cantil-Sakauye then looked to the future by announcing a three-prong civil justice reform initiative that would restore full operating hours and staff at courthouses, focus on funding for the initiatives in the governor’s budget and develop “legal Wayfinders” to assist those without lawyers. 

She explained the term “legal Wayfinders” as people who would help people find their way in courthouses, explain procedures and find and file proper forms. 

“A legal Wayfinder could provide referrals for services, not only in the courtroom, but out in the community,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “A legal Wayfinder could do this on a one-on-one basis or in a workshop setting.”

Griffith reacted to the address by issuing a plea for help in reducing frivolous lawsuits.

“We hope next year the State of the Judiciary addresses the number of unwarranted lawsuits hitting the court system in California because of loopholes in existing laws that allow bad actors to file lawsuits,” she said. “This state has been named a Judicial Hellhole for years by Americans for Tort Reform.”

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