Guest Editorial: Court reporters necessary to assure fairness in domestic violence situations

By Genevieve A. Suzuki

A recent financial decision has placed San Diego family law attorneys in quite a pickle: In an effort to deal with decreased funding, as of Sept. 5, the San Diego Superior Court cut court reporters, taking away official records from some of the cases that need them most.

In their defense, the judges of the San Diego Superior Court didn’t want to make these service reductions, according to Presiding Judge Jeffrey B. Barton.

“Unfortunately, we have no choice. … In previous budget cuts, we have tried to keep cuts from affecting families and children. Now, with continuing reductions in our budget we have nowhere else to reduce. Our budget is over $30 million lower than it was nine years ago in 2008 despite increasing costs in all areas of operation,” Barton said.

As a family law attorney, I have represented clients in dissolutions of marriage, child custody disputes and requests for domestic violence restraining orders. It isn’t the easiest route to have selected when it comes to the practice of law.

There’s a popular adage among attorneys: A retiring judge was asked what kinds of cases he liked most and what he enjoyed least. “I prefer trying criminal cases and I hate having to deal with family court,” he said, “because in criminal court I see the worst people on their best behavior and in family court I see the best people at their worst.”

One of the most serious issues in family law is domestic violence. When there are allegations of domestic violence, a judge is often asked to grant a restraining order to protect the abused from the alleged perpetrator. Restraining orders do exactly what you would think: They restrain the party against whom they are ordered.

They also have significant consequences on a person’s freedoms, including, but not limited to, the freedom to own firearms and the freedom to travel as one pleases. When a parent is restrained by the court, he or she may not be able to go to a child’s school to see a play. Restraining orders also create an issue with custody in that they create a rebuttable presumption against joint legal or physical custody for the restrained parent. It makes sense in some cases, but in other cases parties file restraining orders to gain the upper hand with custody.

Family court judges face difficult decisions when presented with restraining orders. They understand the ramifications of granting or denying the requests. No one envies their burden as there’s always a chance they could make a mistake.

The good news is if you feel like the trial court has made legal error, you can appeal that decision. The bad news is without an official court transcript that option may be unavailable. After all, appellants need either an official court transcript or a settled statement agreed upon by the parties and signed off by the trial court. This is an expensive process that most everyday people cannot afford.

In truth, it’s hard enough for most people to retain an attorney, let alone pay for a court reporter and a transcript of an hours-long hearing or days-long trial.

This current arrangement isn’t sustainable. There will either have to be changes to the budget to allow for court reporters for domestic violence restraining order matters or the public will need to appeal to our legislature to mandate such necessities. Operating without an official record when it has a direct effect on your rights isn’t a situation in which anyone should find themselves.

— Genevieve A. Suzuki is a partner with La Mesa-based family law firm Suzuki, Zandovskis & Yip, LLP.

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