Monday, April 4, 2011

More Court Cutbacks Facing Jefferson County

With a combination of cutbacks mandated by the Administrative Office of Courts and the never-ending battle over Jefferson County’s finances, the court system in Jefferson County is bracing for loss of services and delays that will affect everyone in the County.

The Birmingham News and have been covering the pending budgetary woes facing the courts and numerous articles and opinion pieces have detailed the grim picture.  The Jefferson County Family Court will likely lose court referees who hear over 17,000 cases per year.  Bailiffs and security personnel will be cut.  Unlike in years past, the courts are not able to look to the County Commission for help – the County is struggling to avoid bankruptcy in light of the sewer debt debacle and the loss (again) of the occupational tax.  There is a likelihood of fewer weeks for jury trials and even discussions of closing the courthouses one day per week.  Back-ups in the criminal dockets will likely lead to more jail overcrowding.  People with civil lawsuits and divorce cases will have to wait even longer than normal for their cases to be reached if they cannot find ways to resolve them outside of the court system.  

The Birmingham News reported on Sunday, April 3, that the Jefferson County Commission is seeking limited home rule to allow it to enact tax increases and remove earmarks from current taxes to help meet funding shortfalls.  Under the Alabama Constitution, only the legislature can increase taxes.  So far, there has been no agreement from the County’s legislative delegation on how to help the County Commission move forward in fixing its funding problems.  This leaves the courts looking for new avenues of revenue – including the possibility of increased filing fees.  While these budgetary woes grow, the volume of cases our courts are handling continues to be staggering.

The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts reported that last year in Jefferson County (Birmingham and Bessemer) the following NEW cases were filed:

-          Circuit Court Criminal – 7,501
-          Circuit Court Civil – 9,681
-          District Court Criminal – 19,452
-          District Court Civil – 11,292
-          Small Claims – 16,369
-          Domestic Relations (Divorce Courts) 4,938 (3,838 new cases; 1,100 modifications)
-          Juvenile Cases – 5,599
-          Child support cases (Family Courts) – 5,221

This does not address matters that were already pending in the courts prior to these new filings. 

While volunteer mediation programs exist to help the small claims and divorce courts in Birmingham, these programs are limited and can only go so far to help with the backlog of cases in the County.  As the gridlock between the County Commission and the Alabama Legislature continues, the courts have begun announcing layoffs.  Difficult times require creative solutions – hopefully our elected officials will take the steps necessary to insure the safe and efficient operation of our courts.  In the meantime, the lawyers and parties in civil lawsuits and family law cases need to look for avenues other than trials to resolve their cases as early, fairly and efficiently as possible to avoid the delays this budget crisis will bring.   

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