Budget Buzzkill: Your Vanishing Access to the Family Law Courts

By | October 10, 2011

Unless you were on a remote island for the last two years, you’ve suffered daily inundations of bad news about the state of the economy. California’ s overall unemployment remains over 10% and housing values crushed by the weakened real estate market continues its downward slide.

In these hard economic times it can sometimes make good sense to put off unnecessary expenditures. Yet it requires careful thought to decide which ones are unnecessary and which are not.

This dark economic climate froze financial and relationship planning.  Instead of initiating the legal steps required to divide property and end marriages, a significant number of spouses are holding back on filing divorces or seeking  family law legal help. Many of these individuals are avoiding the legal assistance they require while faced with a growing urgency to divide property, seek protective orders, deal with custody and support issues and resolve their financial affairs.

Many people are concerned that they cannot afford the fees to hire a qualified family law attorney or manage the  uncertainties of going to court. Some unhappy couples begrudgingly continue to  remain together planning to take court action at some undefined future date when they believe the economy will turn around.

These people may also believe that they will be in a better financial position to hire an attorney and start the legal process at this future time. Some people believe they are saving money by self representation.

Self representation will result in costs far exceeding any amount of  fees you pay a qualified family law attorney. Navigation through the courts without legal counsel ensures the likelihood that you or your children’s legal rights will not be protected. The real cost of not hiring an attorney to represent you will translate into unequal or overlooked  property divisions, erroneous support awards and parenting plans that do not serve the best interests of the children.

In the short run, this plan seems practical….you are not spending limited financial  resources on proceeding with your divorce. In the long run however, this inaction can result in disastrous unintended consequences.

Staying together in a frayed emotionally volatile marriage saps the psychological and financial well being of both spouses. If you have children, the decision to stay together can lead to children’s serious emotional damage affecting their future interpersonal relationships. Children learn from their parents. If the children are learning the wrong relationship tools by observing their parents stuck in a broken marriage, those children may be destined to repeat bad relationships.  Some children exposed to the emotional hardships of toxic relationships  may never feel safe about making commitments in their own primary adult relationships.

Besides the hidden generational emotional toll stemming from not ending a bad marriage, there are also financial costs.  Any debt your spouse may be running up could end up as your responsibility. Out of control debt can ruin any hope of protecting your credit score.

Waiting to take legal action at some undefined future date can also complicate your efforts of effectively processing  your divorce through the courts. There is more bad news on the risks of delaying your divorce.  Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a budget that slashed over 350 million dollars from the state court’s operating revenues.

The cuts could result in reduced services and employee hours, and more employee layoffs at courts across the state.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl said she worries that the latest cuts will make it difficult for courts already “operating at a level of bare bones” to provide adequate public access and levels of service.

Already impacted by earlier budget reductions, many California family law court services have been slashed. Court hours have been reduced, timely access to mandatory mediation with child custody court mediators before hearing is at a premium.   These examples are just two  of the many resulting from  earlier budget cutbacks.

All Bay Area courts will be negatively impacted by this new round of budget reductions. The Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, in responding to these recent budget cuts,  announced  that  over half of San Francisco county civil departments will be closed and half of the related administrative staff laid off. Those closures and layoffs includes the elimination of family law departments and clerks.

It is only a matter of time before other Bay Area family law departments will suffer slow downs, delays  and other complications brought about by cutbacks and additional staff reductions. Your chances of protecting your legal rights while self-represented took a dive along with the court budget. The most effective way to navigate through the courts  is investing in hiring a family law attorney to establish and protect your legal rights.

Waiting for a more secure economic climate cannot be tied to your immediate  need to protect you and your children’s legal rights and access to the courts.

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