It takes at least six months to get a divorce in San Francisco, and now unhappy couples can add at least a year to that, thanks to planned budget cuts to the Superior Court.
Katherine Feinstein, the Superior Court’s presiding judge, gave a dire outlook to reporters at a Monday news conference, reiterating the court’s plan to lay off 200 employees and close 25 courtrooms in late September.
The budget recently approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature sliced hundreds of millions of dollars from state courts. San Francisco is facing a $13.75 million deficit, or 15.6 percent of its operating budget.
“We’re left with one painful, unprecedented option, which is a reduction in service that is so severe that it will, for all practical purposes, dismantle our court,” Feinstein said.
Most of the effects will be felt in civil cases, where litigants can anticipate years of delays, according to Feinstein. Reduced office hours for court clerks will make filing and obtaining information more difficult. Feinstein warned of long hours waiting in line just to pay a traffic ticket, and months to get a copy of a criminal or civil court record.
While state law allows for a final decree of divorce after six months and one day, “We anticipate adding a year to that time, which obviously will leave many families in a very uncomfortable state,” Feinstein said.
The court is planning to close one of its three family law courtrooms, according to court spokeswoman Ann Donlan.
Additionally, court family law services — such as a self-help center for those who don’t have attorneys, mediation and case management by judges in contested divorces — are thinly stretched now and will likely become worse, Donlan said.
San Francisco attorney Yasmine Mehmet, a family law specialist, said the court’s planned cuts would be “devastating, really, for a lot of people.”
Divorce is often a very emotional matter, especially where children are involved, Mehmet said. Delays in contested cases will likely only make them more difficult.
“It’s going to push people to really think long and hard about whether they do or don’t want to settle,” she said.
Mehmet said more couples might turn to private judges, a quicker but more costly option.
But many might not be able to afford alternatives.
“What I think is among the most painful things is that we are the place people can come — and we are not free, but we are significantly less expensive than all the private alternative resolution services are,” Feinstein said.
Anticipated court budget impacts
- Hours standing in line to pay a traffic ticket or criminal fine at the Hall of Justice
- Months to obtain criminal and civil records
- Years to resolve many civil cases, including at least a year and a half on divorce cases
- Reduced self-help services for litigants without attorneys
- Reduced hours in clerks’ offices
Source: San Francisco Superior Court