Chief Justice Speech - October 10, 2002

Spanish Self-Help Education and Information Center
Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Fresno, California
October 10, 2002

Good morning. I am very pleased to join you this morning to celebrate the opening of the Fresno Spanish Self-Help Education and Information Center of the Fresno County Superior Court. I want to thank Kerri Keenan, Public Outreach Director for the Fresno superior court, for inviting me to attend. I view the initiation of this unique center as one more significant step in a broad effort by the judicial branch to reach out to the public and make the courts more accessible for all those who require their services.

I note that among those present today is Michael Roddy, the Regional Director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, Northern Central Region. The regional office headed by Mike — like the counterpart regional offices in the Southern and the Bay Area/Northern Coastal Regions — has recently been established to enhance the services and resources provided to the trial courts by the AOC.

As you probably are aware, the other six members of the Supreme Court and I held an oral argument session here in Fresno on Tuesday and Wednesday. This was one part of our court's outreach effort to the community to inform the public about the courts and to learn from the community about its concerns and interests. We were very gratified at the community's response, particularly the schools' participation in the telecast of the oral arguments as a teaching tool to help students better understand how our judicial system operates. So Fresno has scored two important "firsts" this week in the ongoing effort to improve the access of Californians to our system of justice.

Today's celebration is an important milestone in our branch's efforts to better serve the public. The Judicial Council — which, as Chief Justice, I chair — is the constitutionally created entity charged with setting policy for the courts statewide. As part of a long-term planning process, the council adopted specific goals and objectives for the court system. From the beginning of the process, almost ten years ago, the council has focused on improving access and fairness in the courts.

A series of fundamental changes in our court system's structure in the past five years has made it possible for the courts to become more responsive to community needs and have paved the way for initiatives such as the one we celebrate today here in Fresno.

In 1997, the Legislature adopted a measure under which the state now provides the financial resources necessary for our system to function. Before that time, courts were subject to a bifurcated funding system, with both the state and the local counties contributing funding.

Because of differences in the fiscal health among the various counties, courts were unable to provide a consistent level of service. At the time state funding was adopted, courts in several counties were on the brink of bankruptcy, and many courts already had drastically reduced services and hours of operation.

State funding has provided an adequate, steady source of funding — even in difficult economic times such as the present, when the courts are still in much better shape than they would be under the old system. Trial courts have been relieved of the need to satisfy two fiscal masters, neither of whom ultimately took responsibility for their well-being.

Courts now are able to step back and plan — and one important component of that planning has been to involve the local community in the process in order to evaluate and respond to the community's needs and concerns.

A second structural change in the judicial system occurred in 1998, when the voters by an overwhelming majority adopted Proposition 220, permitting the superior and municipal courts in each county to unify upon a vote of the judges. This option was rapidly embraced by the courts, and early in 2001, I swore in California's last four municipal court judges as judges of the unified Superior Court of Kings County.

Unification has enabled courts to make the most of available resources. More judges are available for assignment to courtrooms, and more court services are being provided at more locations. Courts have initiated specialized court programs focused on particular problems such as drug use, domestic violence, and juvenile mental health. These dedicated courts work closely with the prosecution, defense counsel, probation departments, and community service providers to consider not only the crime, but also the root causes that may lead to a repetition of criminal conduct.

One major concern for the judicial system has been the increasing number of litigants unable to obtain legal representation. In some counties, in almost two-thirds of family law matters, at least one party does not have counsel. Self-represented litigants often require additional court time, yet judges presiding over ongoing matters are not in a position to provide the information and assistance needed by these individuals.

Individuals unable to obtain legal representation may well be unable to vindicate their rights. The court system can be daunting to individuals untrained in the law. Its procedures generally are formal and precise, developed over the years with the expectation that counsel will be there to help litigants negotiate the intricacies of the process.

Our court system has realized, however, that meaningful access to the courts encompasses far more than physical availability. Those who turn to the courts must be able to make use of the judicial process, and courts therefore must consider the needs of self-represented litigants - and attempt where feasible to meet those needs.

Individual courts already have implemented a number of programs designed to further this goal. These include installing self-help kiosks located in courthouses, and developing simplified forms. The Equal Access Fund, created by the Legislature to assist in programs designed to help indigent litigants, is administered jointly by the Judicial Council and the State Bar Foundation. Grants from this fund have been made to local courts to enable them to work with local bar associations and attorneys to provide on-site assistance in filling out forms and following court procedures. The Legislature also has provided funding to place family court facilitators in each courthouse to assist with child support and related issues.

On the statewide level, the Judicial Council has formed a task force charged with studying the needs of self-represented litigants and making recommendations for addressing them. Already on the council's website is an exciting Web page designed to help those without counsel with specific procedures. The council's general site at www.courtinfo.ca.gov provides a host of information about the courts, including links to individual courts across the state.

A link to a specially designed self-help site leads to detailed information about where to obtain legal help and information. It also contains step-by-step directions about the forms needed for certain actions, along with information about how to fill them out. For example, individuals seeking to obtain — or defend against — domestic violence restraining orders can find targeted information on how to proceed, including not only court-related information, but also direction to local domestic violence shelters and other services. This information is being translated into Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

I, along with other judges and lawyers, also personally continue to urge attorneys to provide pro bono assistance. Many lawyers across California already provide invaluable pro bono help in areas including family law, landlord/tenant, immigration, elder abuse, HIV issues, and the obtaining of benefits.

In short, many options are being explored and implemented. The center that we are dedicating today provides one excellent example of a targeted program developed to meet local needs - namely, the needs of a large Spanish-speaking community that often lacks access to legal assistance.

In the past ten years, Fresno County has experienced a tremendous change in its population. More than 44 percent of residents now are of Hispanic background. In some areas, 98 percent of the population is Hispanic. For many of these individuals, Spanish is their first — and often their only — language. In just the last half of 2001, Fresno County's superior court provided interpreter services in more than 19,000 cases. In 90 percent of those cases, the language involved was Spanish.

When these individuals need the services of the courts, they face a number of barriers. Many persons are completely unacquainted with our legal system and unaware of the recourse that may be available to them. Others are unfamiliar with court procedures. And for others, a language barrier hinders their ability to communicate their needs to court staff or to comply with court requirements.

This self-help center, sponsored by a Judicial Council grant, is aimed at meeting some of the needs of this population through a multifaceted approach. The Fresno court was selected after a competitive grant process designed to create a model self-help program that will provide guidance that can be exported to other counties. This is the first self-help center in the state specifically targeted at Spanish-speaking individuals.

The Judicial Council grant was awarded to help Fresno's superior court establish a program that will provide simple self-help guidance in Spanish for completing court forms, the formation of a volunteer interpreter bureau, and the introduction of a Spanish-language self-help center.

Providing Spanish-language translations of forms is in line with the council's broad interest in promoting simplification and easy use by the public of court forms. This basic step can have play an enormous role in demystifying the process for many individuals.

Providing enough trained court interpreters has been a continuing problem for the courts. For the past several years, the Judicial Council has worked hard to improve pay for interpreters, to create a certification process to ensure that those needing translation services are provided adequate assistance, and to attract and retain more interpreters for this vital enterprise. The volunteer interpreters bureau will work with local community-based organizations to provide qualified and trained assistance for pro per litigants at the Spanish self-help education and information center.

In coordination with community resources, such as the welfare-to-work and workforce connection programs, individuals will be trained not only in office procedures, but also to provide interpretive assistance. I believe that qualifies as a triple-win situation.

As noted, the self-help center itself is specifically designed to serve the Spanish-speaking population of Fresno County. It will offer access to self-help instruction; to the interpreter services I mentioned; to the assistance of a Spanish-speaking court examiner to review court documents; to Spanish-language clinics in subject matter areas such as guardianships, unlawful detainers, and family law; and to volunteer interpreters to assist with court proceedings.

The center has been reaching out through community organizations and media outlets. Its services will complement programs already in existence in the court, including the Family Law Facilitator Office and the family law information system. The center will closely coordinate not only with these programs, but also with community groups and organizations that can assist the center in reaching the population it is designed to serve, and in advising it about the community's needs.

The opening of this program is a major step in affording meaningful access to the courts for a segment of the population that needs special attention. It is another instance in which a California court has taken the initiative - one more example of our court system's willingness to take responsibility for the administration of justice and to stand accountable to the public for the job we do.

To be effective, our judicial branch must rely upon the trust and confidence of those we serve. Projects such as the one we celebrate today assist us in earning that confidence from all parts of the community.

I offer my congratulations and my thanks to the Fresno County Superior Court - and all its collaborators in this exciting initiative - for creating this new program. Your commitment and creativity highlight why the other two branches of government are placing greater reliance on the judicial branch to lead the way in fashioning improvements to California's legal system.

But we should not forget that this project is not a creation of the courts alone. The participation and contributions of the local community have been integral to the development of this center and will be integral to its success. The community has stepped forward eagerly and effectively, and this example of court/community coordination is one of which you all can be very proud and which, I am certain, will be emulated by others.

I, and the entire Judicial Council, look forward to hearing about your progress and accomplishments. Thank you for taking this important step and for serving as a model for other courts in the future.

It has been a pleasure to join you here today in taking part in this important occasion.

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