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Poor Litigants Have Right to Free Court Reporter in California

Poor Barry Jameson, representing himself in a civil trial, was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

For budget reasons, the San Diego Superior Court did not provide a court reporter and Jameson couldn't afford one either. After the judge dismissed his case, he appealed but had no record to offer the reviewing court.

In Jameson v. Desta, the California Supreme Court said the superior court must provide court reporters to indigent litigants. Now the trial courts are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

In Forma Pauperis

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the court reporter policy -- requiring litigants to pay for court reporters in civil cases -- wasn't fair to litigants in forma pauperis like Jameson.

"Accordingly, we conclude that the court policy in question is invalid as applied to plaintiff and other fee waiver recipients, and that an official court reporter, or other valid means to create an official verbatim record for purposes of appeal, must generally be made available to in forma pauperis litigants upon request," she wrote for the unanimous court.

It was a big win for people who can't afford litigation, but a big bummer for courts that are cash-strapped. San Diego trimmed court reporters from its budget in 2012, but it was not alone.

According to reports at the time, more than half of California counties have stopped paying for court reporters. That includes civil, family, and probate courts.

Limited Resources

In the ruling, the chief justice acknowledged the financial challenges facing trial courts. However, she said they must find a way for fee-waiver recipients to have verbatim transcripts of their court proceedings.

Michael Shipley, who represented Jameson on appeal, said the American Bar Association and 39 other organizations joined in amicus briefs supporting his client.

"This issue was affecting in a negative way all kinds of people's rights to petition the government for redress of their grievances," he told Courthouse News. "It affects prisoners filing civil rights cases and it has a huge impact on family law cases."

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