In another blow to the little guy, which, let’s face it, is most of us, California courts are threatening to charge $10 for each record search under a proposal included in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget.  And let’s be clear about this:  this is a very bad idea.  It acts to limit the public’s access to public records, and this includes those who go to battle in California’s family courts.  Bad idea.

According to the Ventura County Star, California’s governor, in his proposed budget, included the search fee as one of the ways the courts can raise $30 million a year to offset budget cuts.  Over the past five fiscal years the judicial budget has been reduced by more than $1 billion through cuts and transfers, which has resulted in fewer courtrooms, construction delays and an array of higher fees.

Advocates of good government and media organizations have expressed worry that such a fee would restrict access to files the public has a right to view.  Lawmakers have also expressed concerns about limiting information to those who can afford it.

They fear the big price tag for records could restrict newspaper reporters or members of the public from being able to gain access to public records.  There is currently no charge to search a court file, although courts charge $15 to look up cases that require a court employee to take more than ten (10) minutes to search.  Under the governor’s proposal, a person could search for free for a case in which that person is a party but would be charged $10 for each additional search.

Administrative director of the courts, Steven Jahr, has expressed his support for the fee augmentations “not because we regard them as being sound policy, but out of simple impulse for self-preservation.”  Jahr said court officials would rather see the legislature restore $535 million to California’s court system, which includes 58 trial courts, six courts of appeal and the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, however, California’s Family Law courts, with their volumes of records, like all of California’s courts, will become a little more inaccessible to the average person.

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