STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Somebody gets mad at you, you might reply: Sue me. Turns out that's getting a little harder to do. Across the country people are losing access to small claims courts. These are the courts that deal with disputes that involve relatively small sums of money. Some consider them workhorses of the judicial system. But justice may be delayed, as small claims courts are forced to scale back in cash-strapped states. Nowhere are they experiencing more cuts than in California.
Emily Green reports.
EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Small claims courts were created in the mid-20th century to allow people to resolve monetary disputes that are small in the greater scheme of things but huge to people of limited means.
They're unique because of how efficient they are. You don't need a lawyer, and judges usually make their rulings on the spot, in 30 minutes or less. They're meant for people like Mark Delnero, the owner of a charter fishing boat company.
In December, Delnero drove to the San Joaquin County courthouse, plunked down a $30 fee, and asked the small claims court to give him justice. He claimed a customer stiffed him with a bad check for $740.
MARK DELNERO: Nothing like being shafted twice, you know, once by the bad check bouncer and then by the Stockton court.
GREEN: He says the court told him he would receive notice of a hearing in 90 days. He never heard anything. So he called the small claims court after 90 days and then again after 120 days. Both times, he said, the court told him his case still wasn't scheduled.
DELNERO: I just - I don't have faith in how the courts work, you know. I'm just in awe. You know, I just - I don't know what to think.
GREEN: Delnero is one of more than 800 people in San Joaquin County facing the same situation. The Stockton court hasn't set a trial date for any small claims cases filed since September, and officials say they don't know when they'll start setting dates.
DAVID WARNER: In our county, if you file a small claims case, it simply sits in the proverbial box waiting for it to get a trial date. Your case sits and goes nowhere.
GREEN: That's the court's presiding judge, David Warner.
WARNER: It's not right, but you have to have sufficient resources to get those cases done and we don't have those resources.
GREEN: Other courts are implementing similar cost-saving measures. Los Angeles County Superior Court will soon reduce the number of courthouses at which it hears small claims cases from 27 to just six. L.A. is also closing down eight courthouses completely. The cuts have led community groups to file a lawsuit claiming the reduction in services disproportionately affects minorities and low-income people.
KEN THEISEN: You have the same right if you are a poor person as Bill Gates has to go to court
GREEN: Ken Theisen is an advocate with Bay Area Legal Aid.
THEISEN: But the reality is, if you don't have an attorney, if you don't have the means to go to court, if you don't, you know, have the time to spend hours and hours waiting in line, the reality is you are denied access to justice. It's a practical right versus a real right.
GREEN: That real right for his day in court is something Mark Delnero is still waiting for. And the fishing boat company owner is losing hope.
DELNERO: It's not going to ever happen, is it? Because I could use the money now, you know? I'm struggling to pay rent. Rent's due today, as a matter of fact.
GREEN: As state court systems grapple with reduced budgets, a new normal has emerged - one that involves limited clerks' hours, longer wait times to go to trial, fewer court reporters, and to top it off, higher fees just to try and get justice. Even though you might end up waiting a very long time.
For NPR News, I'm Emily Green.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.