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Grand jury: Law library in crisis over inadequate funding

 

Financial problems stemming from an unreliable funding mechanism are threatening the viability of county law libraries in California, including the 100-year-old San Mateo County Law Library in Redwood City, according to a recent report by the county's civil grand jury.

That library, located at 710 Hamilton St. in downtown Redwood City, is free and open to the public. The library's collection and its staff are resources for legal professionals and students, but also for those trying to navigate the legal system without a lawyer.

Along with cutbacks on subscriptions to legal publications and databases, the library is no longer open on weekends or evenings, a full-time employee was cut to part-time, and four part-time positions were eliminated as was the library's lecture series and an in-library lawyer assistance program.

The library collection includes legal books, educational audio programs, microfiche archives, and subscriptions to print publications and electronic legal databases.

Library staff are available for questions. Over the 12 months beginning July 1, 2014, staff answered more than 5,500 questions from some 7,750 patrons, the report says.

"Law libraries are no longer just for lawyers but are instead a unique public asset frequented by residents of all backgrounds and needs," the report says.

The grand jury urges the county Board of Supervisors to "step up as a model for the state and take visionary action" to find the revenue necessary to provide patrons with "current and relevant" legal resources. Sixty percent of the print collection is "now dormant, therefore out of date," the report says. "Rising costs and falling revenues render the current funding source (as) outdated and insufficient."

Since 1907, law library funding has come from a percentage of revenues taken from the fee charged for filing cases in civil courts. That system is still in place, but fee revenues have dropped sharply in recent years as library operating costs have gone up, and the Legislature has not allowed the libraries' share of fee revenues to keep pace, the report says.

Financial strains are coming from rising costs and falling revenues. For the second consecutive year, the Redwood City library will be spending more than it receives in funding, the report says.

That library needs annual revenues of about $850,000, but received just $551,000 for the 2015-16 budget year, the report says. Operating fund reserves were down to $300,000, a 70 percent drop from 2011-12, the report says.

Elected officials are required to respond within 60 days to the grand jury's recommendations; governing bodies must respond within 90 days. The report was published in late June.

No longer sufficient

Revenues were not an issue when library patrons consisted of sole-practitioner attorneys, legal students and court staff, the report says. But non-professionals now make up half the patron population and regularly use the libraries to research family law, contract law, wills and laws around starting a business.

People who represent themselves in civil court are a significant presence, the report says, citing John Adkins, president of the Council of California County Law Librarians, as saying that nationwide, more than 80 percent of litigants appear in court without lawyers.

The state Legislature in 2006 imposed a moratorium on increasing libraries' share of filing fee revenues. Though the moratorium expired in 2008, the Legislature has not acted to raise the share, the report says.

Making things worse in terms of revenues, the number of civil court filings statewide has dropped 52 percent over between 2010 and 2015, a trend attributed to increased use of arbitration and mediation, increased access to small claims court, judicial discretion in waiving filing fees, and an improving economy, the report says.

Add to these trends a need to continually update a library's collection "to maintain legal accuracy and integrity" -- at the San Mateo County library, an expense of over $200,000 a year. "Cancellation of print subscriptions (at the San Mateo County library) has accelerated since June 2015 as the Law Library implements further cost savings measures in response to the continued decrease of funds in fiscal year 2015-2016," the report says.

While filing fee revenues are the libraries' primary funding mechanism, state law also allows boards of supervisors to "appropriate from the county treasury for the law library purposes such sums as may in their discretion appear proper," the report says.

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