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Fewer L.A. County courthouses to hear eviction cases under plan

March 1, 2013 |  8:15 am

The number of courthouses in Los Angeles County hearing eviction cases will be reduced from 26 to five under a Los Angeles County Superior Court plan to cut costs.

The plan will disproportionately harm low-income tenants fighting eviction, legal advocates for the poor say. Some people will have to travel up to 32 miles to litigate their cases, court officials said, under the plan expected to be implemented by the end of June.

For some, the trips could take several hours using public transportation and include transfers on multiple trains and buses, said Neal Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. That travel time is of particular concern in eviction cases because the courts move quickly, he said.

"For people who are already in great stress and can't really afford to take days off work or have to bring little kids with them wherever they go, it's really impossible," Dudovitz said.

Under California law, tenants in most cases have five days to file a written response to the lawsuit brought by their landlords. If the person does not file a response within that time frame, the court rules in favor of the landlord.

The court also enters a judgment in the landlord's favor if the tenant does not appear in court. Judges typically hear and decide the cases within 20 days after the landlord or tenant requests the case go to trial.

"For the low-income community, this is about being able to stay in their homes," Dudovitz said.

In the last fiscal year, 67,182 eviction lawsuits, known as unlawful detainer cases, were filed in Los Angeles County courts, said Mary Hearn, a court spokeswoman. Under the court's plan, the cases would be heard only in Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica, the Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

Dudovitz said he understands the court system must cut costs but the plan would be better if more "trial hubs" were created. He is particularly concerned about residents in the San Fernando Valley, he said.

In the Van Nuys court alone, more than 8,000 unlawful detainer cases were filed in 2011, records show. Under the court's plan, those cases--as well as those from several other courthouses--would be moved to the Santa Monica courthouse, which had about 4,600 unlawful detainer cases filed in 2011.

The changes, advocates say, could overwhelm courthouses, create longer lines and cause cases to be handled more slowly.

The changes come as the court system works to close a $56-million-to-$85-million budget shortfall by the beginning of the next fiscal year July 1, Hearn said. The assigning of eviction cases to certain courts is part of an overall cost-cutting plan that includes the closure of 10 regional courthouses.

Plans also call for the creation of trial hubs to handle small claims, collections and personal injury cases.

Court officials say the bulk of savings from the overall plan will come from layoffs, though it is unclear how many court workers will lose their jobs, Hearn said.

When Margaret Howze's landlord tried to evict her late last year, Howze traveled by bus from her home in Winnetka to the nearest courthouse in Van Nuys. Twice she made the trip -- which she said took more than two hours in one direction -- to file her response to the suit and to attend an early-morning hearing in January.

Under the court's plan, Howze would have had to travel from the San Fernando Valley to a courthouse in Santa Monica -- double the distance she traveled to the Van Nuys courthouse.

"It's too far," Howze said. "Why would you take something that helps people in the community and take it out and make a hardship for them?"

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-- Hailey Branson-Potts

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