To address an "extreme budget shortfall," Los Angeles County, Calif., Superior Court plans to close its 20-year-old alternative dispute resolution program on June 18.
The ADR programthe largest in the countryis the latest victim of budget cuts that have ravaged California's judicial system. Its absence will especially punish "the average citizen who finds himself in a lawsuit," including small business owners, victims of automobile accidents or litigants with disputes over employment issues, real property or escrow problems, said Richard Burdge, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Most such cases are worth $150,000 or less.
The ADR program helped litigants resolve their cases early before an arbitrator or mediator and avoid spending more money on going to trial, he said.
"The program facilitates a lot of early settlement negotiations that otherwise might not happen," said Burdge, of The Burdge Law Firm in downtown Los Angeles, who handles complex civil litigation for businesses. "Most will still settle and not go to trial, but there will be a lot more cases clogging the system, slowing things down. With all the other changes, the system is already clogged up and slowing down."
Of the 10,000 cases referred through the ADR program during 2012, 70 percent of litigants sought free services rather than pay for their own mediator or arbitrator, he said. As the program expanded, he said, personnel costs increased. About 60 percent of the cost comes out of the court's budget.
Burdge predicted that, without the program, more litigants will pay for mediators or arbitrators, who charge between $300 per hour to $10,000 per day. Others will have to go to trial.
The Los Angeles Superior Court is reorganizing as part of a court consolidation plan. In November, the court announced plans to close 10 courthouses to save $50 million to $80 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1.