A Report On The Family Law Need In Law Angeles County And An Anal

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Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law

A Report on the
Extent of Family Law Need in Los Angeles County:
and An Analysis of Its Effects on Poor and Battered Women and Their Children
1999 Update
A Supplement to the 1999-2000 Proposal to the Los Angeles County Bar Foundation
Prepared by Betty L. Nordwind, Executive Director, March 8, 1999

"Experiences in family law matters shape views about courts, judges, the legal profession and ultimately about the fairness of the justice system."
Report, State Bar of California, Office of Research, August 1997, The Pro Per Crisis in Family Law

" Family Law cases represent one of the most common experiences people have with the court system..."
Family Law Court 2000: A Proposal To Provide Increased Access To The Courts For Family Related Conflicts, Oct 1997 Draft Report, Family Law Subcommittee, Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Committee to the California Judicial Council

"The first duty of society is justice."
Alexander Hamilton

1. Introduction:

This report is designed to document the enormous need for family law assistance in Los Angeles County, and the harmful effects on the courts and the public - particularly women and children - caused by failure to meet this need. By this method it is hoped that the reader can better appreciate the critical role the Harriett Buhai Center plays in addressing this problem and reaffirm his or her commitment to assuring adequate funding for the Center's work.

To evaluate the need for family law assistance and understand its impact on poor and abused women and children as well as on indigent litigants in Los Angeles, the writer relied upon several recent studies by the State Bar of California, the CA Judicial Council and the American Bar Association. These studies address issues of access to justice for low-income persons, gender bias in the courts, and available data on women, particularly the extent to which they live in poverty and are battered. Also relevant to this discussion is an analysis of caseload statistics reported by the Los Angeles Superior Court for the calendar year most recently ended.

2. Court Caseload/ Court Trends:

A. Caseload: By all measures the Los Angeles County Superior courtrooms are busy with family law cases. Reported data for 1998 reveals that out of a total new filing caseload of 301,317 matters, family law-related cases, including those brought by private litigants under the Domestic Violence Protection Act (DVPA) and those handled by the District Attorney pursuant to their authority in the Welfare and Institutions Code to establish paternity and collect child support, numbered 124,108. This amounts to a whopping 41% of the Superior Court's entire caseload, and does not include paternity cases which are brought by private parties and are considered to be "civil" matters. Their number cannot be extracted from the general civil category.

Reported information shows that in 12.5% of the cases (15,552 out of 124,108) filed during this period, applications were granted to allow filing informa pauperis based upon the litigants' financial inability to pay the court's filing fee. This number excludes the DVPA cases which do not require any filing fee. During this latter period, the family law departments heard 14,016 Orders to Show Cause proceedings in marital cases (dissolution, legal separation and nullity), amounting to a rate of 1,168 OSCs per month in these cases alone.

From the individual litigant's point of view, family law also weighs heavily as a frequent source of legal problems. In a 1996 study on access to civil justice in California, citing the 1994 American Bar Association seminal publication entitled Comprehensive Legal Needs Study, the authors reported that "household/marital dissolution" was among the top three most commonly expressed legal needs in a given year. In an earlier study by the ABA, family law was reported as the single largest group of legal problems, affecting 32.4% of all surveyed households.

B. Trends: The Judicial Council reports a growing trend of self-representation in family law cases. It is estimated that in 90-95% of DVPA cases (Family Code 6200 et seq.) at least one of the parties has no lawyer and in 83% both have no representation. A 1997 poll of judges representing 33 counties in the state reflected that in two-thirds of all family law cases, at least one party is unrepresented, and that in nearly one-half the cases, neither party is represented.

To further highlight the burgeoning family law caseload, already clearly evident in LA County, the Family Law Advisory Committee of the Judicial Council, in a draft report dated October 29, 1997, stated that "according to the National Center for State Courts, domestic relations is the fastest growing sector of court calendars." The report also stated that the Office of Family Court Services reported a "precipitous" rise in the number of child custody mediations, which is directly linked to the number of contested child custody matters and total actions filed.

3. Availability of Counsel in Family Law Cases:

As the data from the Judicial Council poll described above indicates, in a majority of family law cases one or both parties do not have counsel to represent them at hearings. Because of their extreme need, individuals are simply filing cases and defending themselves without resort to legal counsel when they do not have funds to hire attorneys.

Data from the 1996 State Bar report on access to justice indicates that at the start of this decade, 5 million out of 30 million Californians were poor, with gross monthly incomes 125% or less of federal poverty levels. Extrapolating this percentage of very indigent persons to the number of family law cases filed in LA in 1998, it may conservatively be assumed that in 16.6% of those cases at least one of the parties was poor - approximately 20,600 litigants per year at a minimum. Thus it can be argued that this very rough figure represents the demand from new family law/ domestic violence litigants that non-profit legal organizations such as the Center need to meet each year. And this figure does not include existing cases, already filed and being prosecuted.

Based upon the Center's practical experience, measured by phone calls and requests received in person and by mail, and with the added weight of statistical extrapolation, it can be stated with virtual certainty that LA programs are currently meeting well under one-half of the new filing and continuing family law case need each year. Of the potential 26,000 poor persons with new cases (including those initiated by the DA) the Center, handling about 600 new cases annually, is managing to address just under 3% of the need.

4. Effect Upon Poor and Battered Women and Their Children:

Now that the enormity of the need is known and the scope of the problem is again revealed, it is important to address the question of whether and how this gap between demand and supply affects the courts and the public, particularly women and children. The courts do not maintain records on the gender of the moving party. However, the Center's records over the last decade consistently reflect that an overwhelming number of the applicants for help are women, averaging between 75-80% of all clients each year. Thus, based on the Center's own experience, the lack of available family law assistance falls heavily on women who may seek out family law services more than men.

Certain characteristics are known about households headed by women (i.e. those families with children in which the male is not present by reason of family separation, whether married or unmarried). They are poorer than most other family groups, only 25% receive all the child support they are due, and 1 out of every 4 has been or will be the victim of domestic abuse. Sadly, when this violence occurs, 87% of the children in these homes are witnesses.

The lack of adequate legal recourse occasioned by the unavailability of legal advice and assistance greatly increases the likelihood of harm to already vulnerable female-headed households. Some ways in which this occurs is the following:

                 An in-depth study performed by the Judicial Council several years ago documented the fact that in "high conflict" family law cases (where the parents are at constant "war") the negative impact of family separation on their children is greatly increased. The absence of lawyers who can help hostile litigants quell their disturbances further exacerbates this problem and adds to the damage inflicted on children;

                 All studies and reports indicate that 1 out of 4 women in this country will be victims of domestic battery sometime during their lives. There have been no studies on the availability of legal help for these women. Given the paucity of lawyers for low-income persons documented in California by the recent access to justice study and the observed incidence of litigants appearing without attorneys in DVPA cases, it can safely be assumed that most of these women do not have lawyers. Not only are lawyers unavailable to assist with the obtaining of orders of protection, but they are not present to help secure appropriate orders for custody and visitation and support. Failure to address adequately domestic violence problems in a family may affect children for the rest of their lives;

                 Unfortunately, Los Angeles County has among the worst performing government child support programs in the U.S. For example, recently compiled data shows that the County D.A.'s office is collecting current child support in less than 10% of its caseload, and that for families on welfare, it is far less. For those welfare households, the collection rate is 2%. The nationwide collection average is 20%; some jurisdictions collect in 30% of their cases. The lack of child support contributes to the poverty of single parent households. The effect of poverty on children is well-documented. It causes poor school performance, depression and other maladies that last a lifetime. The lack of a viable local system of child support enforcement places more pressures than ever on agencies like the Center to help custodial parents secure some support from the other parent. Recent welfare reform measures increases the need to maximize parental contribution in low-income households;

                 In the Judicial Council's study of gender bias in the judicial system family law judges honestly reported that unrepresented women in the courts did not fare well relative to their male counterparts and that, in general, the relief obtained by unassisted litigants was unsatisfactory.

For these reasons and others it is apparent that problems caused by the overload of family law cases in the courts and the lack of adequate legal assistance particularly for those who cannot afford counsel, falls most heavily on women and children and oftentimes has permanent negative consequences.
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