Cracking the Code: Three Simple Steps To Break Through the Legalese of the California Rules of Court and Local Rules When Filing with the Court
How do we, the legal paraprofessionals, build a consistent, reliable bridge between the attorney and the clerk, while delivering our pleadings through the Court's gatekeepers?
Whether we are Legal Secretaries, Paralegals or Legal Assistants, we need to ensure that our pleadings are successfully filed without being rejected by the clerk. When filing, we need to comply with both the California Rules of the Court ("CRC") as well as the local rules of each court. Many of us did not go to law school, so how do we understand the legalese when reading these rules? Even attorneys with decades of legal practice experience may encounter obstacles when their best attempts at compliance with the California and local rules do not satisfy the clerk.
Here are three simple steps that can help overcome those obstacles:
- Locate the applicable rules
- Understand those rules
- Clarify any remaining ambiguity with the clerk
1. Locating the Rules
Since the diminutive, spiral-bound desk books we once received annually have now become obsolete, the best modern day reference is to go straight to the source – the California Rules of Court website, where you can find the CRC's. Each county's local rules can be found at http://www.courts.ca.gov/find-my-court.htm, where you can find not only the links, locations, and contacts, but also the proper District for the Court of Appeal for each county.
2. Comprehending the Rules
Foundationally, we must understand the relationship between the Local Rules of the Court and the California Rules of the Court (hereinafter "CRC"). The California Rules of Court ("California Rules" or "CRC") are rules that govern all the state Courts in California – that is, they apply statewide. They are administered, managed and updated by the Judicial Council of California ("The Judicial Council"), which is a body of highly qualified people employed by the State of California and under the leadership of the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, the highest court in our state judicial system. Local Rules cannot supersede the California Rules of the Court. CRC. 3.20.
However, at times, the California Rules often give the "green light" to the Local Rules, providing there is no conflict with higher authority. For example, to open a case, CRC Rule 2.220(a) requires, "The first paper filed in an action or proceeding must be accompanied by a case cover sheet" and that cover sheet "must be on a form prescribed by the Judicial Council and must be filed in addition to any cover sheet required by local court rule." For example, the Los Angeles Superior Court includes within its Local Rules, LR 2.3(a)(1)(E), which instructs us that a Civil Case Cover Sheet Addendum is required for all new civil case filings in "addition to the Civil Case Cover Sheet required by the California Rules of the Court." This Civil Case Cover Sheet Addendum is a locally approved form (LACIV109), which can be found on that court's website. Therefore, to successfully file a first paper and open a new case in the Los Angeles Superior Court, this Civil Case Cover Sheet Addendum must also be filed in addition to documents required by the California Rules, the Complaint and Case Cover Sheet. If this local rule is not followed, your filing may be rejected or sent back asking for that form in order to open your case.
The second most basic rule is to learn to have patience in understanding the grueling legalese in so many of our rules. One way of breaking through the Court’s language as swiftly as possible is to take time in advance.
Here are two ways to get started. Let’s consider how the following two rules work: CRC Rule 1.5 and CRC Rule 1.6.
CRC Rule 1.5, “Construction of Rules and Standards” sets forth a series of requirements that require special attention. In this section, you should notice the mandatory words such as "must," which are required, as compared to words such as "should," which are simply strong suggestions. This will help you look out for and locate the words that flag a rule that unquestionably needs to be followed, versus words that may make your life easier if you follow them, but are not mandated.
Second, take a careful look at the definitions set forth in CRC Rule 1.6, “Definitions and Use of Terms.” The context of these rules is not the same as the everyday English we speak. For example, in Rule 1.6 (14), the word "Person" is not just a "natural person" but this word also includes a "corporation." Who would have ever thought that a corporation would be considered a person when speaking everyday English? It is important to recognize when a term is specifically defined for the Court and demands certain rules are followed, and when a term is free to be used on Friday night (such as ‘party’).
3. Contacting the Court Clerk
For many of us, the all-important interaction with the Clerk may be the most challenging task of all. As a general rule, it is always best to learn how the Clerk prefers to be contacted, by telephone or email, and then proceed from there. Some courts have designated phone hours. Other courts prefer contact by email. All of this vital information can usually be found on each individual court's website.
Our communication with the Court will likely be much smoother if we have all the information available: case number, type of hearing, date and question. Just remember to keep your eye on the ball, and that ball is getting the document successfully filed without any delay. Don't be intimidated by the comportment of the Clerk; these folks are constantly dealing with the public, and often are happy to help a legal professional. Think of yourself and the Clerk working together for a successful filing and representation of your client and strive to do your job in a kind and professional manner. As your career develops, a friendly Clerk who recalls your professionalism and good cheer will almost certainly prove to be one of your most trusted professional contacts.
So, to wrap this up, remember three simple steps: first, locate the applicable rules; second, understand those rules, and third, clarify any remaining ambiguity with the clerk. You got this!
Francie Skaggs is a legal assistant at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP. She is the Educational Chair for the San Francisco Legal Professionals Association.