Monday, February 16, 2009

Sorry, Folks, You'll Just Have To Stay Married... Pt. I.

As the State Legislature finishes up a three-day weekend of not-entirely-successful budget negotiation, I'll be interested to see if just possibly, those who are taking a "no new taxes, ever!" stand really want to bring some of the operations of civil government to a grinding halt, or at least are willing to try and play an increasingly ugly game of "chicken".

The civil justice system in California is teetering, and they may give it a push (Anyone notice that last year, one California county stopped civil trials completely for months, because of the criminal case backlog, until they got a task-force of judges from elsewhere to come in and clean up?) If we essentially close down the system of civil justice for most folks, (and family law is the part that the most folks use) we've pretty much abandoned one of the two roles of state government which have previously distinguished this country and state from others far less fortunate. (The other big hole in the fabric of civil government has been, and will probably continues to be, the final evisceration of what was, once long ago the best system of public education in the country.)

California law still requires any pair of parents with a child custody dispute to go and talk to a court-employed mediator to try and resolve the issue, before presenting the issue to a judge to decide.

In the heyday of this system, pairs of parents could expect to set their hearing, walk into the mediation office, and be seen that morning.
My best recollection of the statistics is that Los Angeles County's mediation staff had about a 70/80% success rate in getting these folks to resolve at least some of their issues. If a pair of parents had a case pending, they could even get a mediation appointment without setting a hearing, and sometimes avoid the expense of setting it.

Unfortunately, the budget for this hasn't come close to keeping up with the population increase. Couples can no longer get a mediation appointment unless they've actually set a hearing, and are required to set a mediation appointment whenever setting a hearing on custody issues, so that mediation can happen before the hearing. The backlog of mediations is now so deep that, depending where in the County someone is looking, the earliest available appointment may be six to ten weeks out.

That means that if a family's falling apart, and they need to get issues resolved, they're looking at two months' wait. Unless they've got enough resources and knowledge so that they can set another hearing on financial issues separately from the hearing on custody issues, they'll be deferring the hearing on financial issues as well. That'd be the hearing originally intended to "preserve the status quo".

Times are tight, people are stressed, and their patience may be a little frayed. What, exactly are parents in inolerable family situations supposed to do? "Suck it up"? Take matters into their own hands? If someone needs to be told to provide financial support for their children, are those children supposed to survive for two months on IOU's? (Some people really don't get it, until they're told. By someone in a black robe with a bailiff nearby. Some don't get it even then...)

We're still running on the tail-end of last year's budget. The coming one will, I expect, only be grimmer. Stay tuned....

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