From Mark Estes, Director, Alameda County Law Library
Persistent Advocacy Yields Great Results for California Public Law Libraries
After several years of intensive advocacy on behalf of Californians desperately in need of legal support and resources, Alameda County Law Library and the Council of California County Law Librarians (CCCLL) are thrilled to report that the California Legislature included a supplemental funding allocation of $16.5 million for California County Law Libraries in the 2018/19 state budget. The Governor signed off on the budget, including the supplemental allocation for County Law Libraries, on June 27.
The need in California is tremendous, if not overwhelming. The additional $16.5 million in funds will ensure that Californians retain access to legal information — and therefore access to justice. County Law Libraries that were on the brink of closure will now be able to remain open and all California County Law Libraries will continue to serve the general public, particularly those who cannot afford counsel but find themselves facing legal challenges. These new funds will allow the libraries to serve vulnerable populations and rural communities, address disaster preparedness and response and provide service for non-English speakers, especially in areas of immigration, workforce-reentry and housing. In these and many other areas, Californians desperately need help.
Every day, people feel frustrated, helpless, ignored and unable to assert their rights because of their lack of financial resources and legal representation. Every day, California County Law Libraries serve single parents trying to provide for their children, widows struggling to maintain their homes, disadvantaged but determined individuals trying to start their own businesses, distressed parents fighting for custody of their children, modest means individuals trying desperately to care for elderly parents and grandparents, those barred from gainful employment because they don’t know how to get criminal records cleared, tenants living in deplorable conditions, victims of notario fraud, DACA children terrified that their families are going to be torn apart and victims of domestic violence and workplace harassment seeking restraining orders.
CCCLL submitted the request for ongoing, stabilized funding of County Law Libraries to preserve access to information and access to justice for these individuals. Funding from the State was critically needed because the civil filing fee revenue that County Law Libraries depend on had dropped by nearly 40% (or $16.5 million) since 2009. Until this allocation, County Law Libraries had not received any general fund or special fund appropriations from the State. Over 90% of County Law Library funding came from a small portion of civil filing fees (ranging from $2 to $50 per case, depending on the county and type of case) which fluctuated unpredictably. In the past 9 years, a decrease in the number of case filings combined with an increase in the number of fee waivers granted, changes to jurisdictional limits and new exemptions adopted into law, caused law library revenue to drop precipitously. California County Law Libraries asked each year for supplemental funding in the state’s budget to salvage this critical component of access to justice in California but, until now, did not receive any allocation whatsoever.
This year, the Legislature, recognizing that without County Law Libraries, most people have no access to legal information and therefore no access to justice, took decisive action to protect this critical public resource and the Governor ratified the action by signing the budget.
CCCLL is profoundly grateful to the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, the Latino Caucus, the 30+ individual legislators who wrote on behalf of County Law Libraries and access to justice, each of the California chapters of AALL (SCALL, NOCALL and SANDALL) who wrote to voice support, and the many other individuals and elected officials who helped make this happen.
As the access to justice gap continues to widen, the need for County Law Library resources and services will only increase. An estimated 70-80% of library users are not legal professionals, but rather individuals trying to understand their rights, navigate the complex judicial system, start a new business or transfer property. The assistance they receive at their county law library is more than can be found in a book or legal database; it is personal assistance, legal research classes for non-lawyers, hands-on workshops, free consultations with lawyers and a safe, friendly, helpful place to ask questions and find help. They may enter the library feeling alienated, stressed or even hostile towards their government, but the support they find at their County Law Library helps them feel that they too can obtain justice. CCCLL will continue to advocate for ongoing funding so that Californians can continue to receive legal assistance and support.