Access to Justice: Iowa Style

Below are excerpts from IOWA State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice Mark S. Cady on January 12, 2011. Unfortunately some of these access to justice issues noted by Chief Justice Cady resound here in South Carolina. For the entire text, click here.

Iowans cannot have the hope of justice without having access to justice. The grim reality is that more and more Iowans with legal problems are forced to wait too long for their day in court. These problems are troublesome to litigants and shake people’s confidence in our government. These problems result from a decade of fiscal austerity coupled with Iowans’ growing demands for court services.

This situation is not new. It has been raised in the past. Thankfully, you and the governor responded to our concerns last year and provided sufficient funds to prevent further cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. For this action, we are grateful. Like a thumb in the dike, however, this action was merely a temporary fix. It did not halt the continued erosion of court services. The situation grows worse day-by-day.

For example, in the past year, the number of clerk of court offices forced to operate on a part-time basis increased from 26 to 30. Staff reductions are so severe that at times some of these offices must close for business without notice due to unanticipated employee absence. The remaining clerk of court offices operate a full day, but are closed to the public for four hours a week to give employees periods of uninterrupted time to pare down the backlog of work. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult for our juvenile court officers to give troubled children the close, personal attention they need. Also, judicial rulings are delayed because of a lack of clerical support and court reporters.

I will briefly review how we arrived at this critical juncture.

From 2001 through 2009, in response to the state’s fiscal problems, the judicial branch like most components of state government had to cut its budget. During those years, the judicial branch cut its budget five times―and each time the cuts were deep. Unlike many state agencies, nearly all of our operating costs are for people―employees and judges. This means that budget cuts almost always require further reductions in our workforce. The end result: our staffing levels have dropped a staggering 17% in the last decade.

Today, Iowa’s court system operates with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987. In contrast, over the same period, the total number of legal actions brought by Iowans and Iowa businesses has nearly doubled. In short, Iowa’s courts are overrun with work, and Iowans are paying the price with reduced access to justice.

Our ability to deliver court services and resolve litigation to the extent that we do is a tribute to the strong work ethic and indomitable spirit of our judges, magistrates, and court staff. Unfortunately, the admirable efforts of our judges and employees cannot totally shield Iowans from the effects of the past decade of budget cuts.

-RFW

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