The state auditor's office has notified superior courts in Marin and Sacramento counties it will seek a court order to gain access to information needed to conduct an audit of the family court system - unless the courts guarantee by Monday that they will comply.

Members of the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted unanimously last year to approve the audit with the encouragement of state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. The audit is focusing on the use and potential misuse of court-appointed specialists, such as mediators, investigators and therapists, in family-law disputes.

Critics have voiced concern that such appointees can form incestuous and incompetent networks more concerned with generating fees than helping children through painful custody fights. Marin and Sacramento counties were chosen for the audit because of the number of litigants reporting problems and filing complaints.

"Despite the fact that our statutes clearly give our office access to the individuals and records we are now seeking and make it a misdemeanor for the courts to fail or refuse to grant us access, it is now March 2010 and the courts are still refusing to cooperate," Sharon Reilly, chief legal counsel to California State Auditor Elaine Howle, wrote in a March 18 letter to Robert Buckley, managing attorney of the Judicial Council of California.

Kim Turner, Marin Superior Court's executive director, said, "We've never opposed that access. But we have been in discussion for a while now with the Bureau of State Audits over how the case sampling is going to take place and what information in case files is actually germane to their audit.

"The scope of the audit is supposed to be related to court processes, how we appoint counsel for minors, our complaint procedures, and that kind of stuff," Turner said. "What we want to do is understand how many documents, if any, in confidential files should be provided to the auditors. We think it's really important that we get to the bottom of that before cases are reviewed."

In her letter, Reilly wrote, "We have listened to the concerns of the courts including, but not limited to, those related to our need to access files that may contain confidential materials and the courts' concerns that the audit will 'cherry-pick' cases to obtain certain results."

Reilly went on to say, "We have attempted to alleviate the courts' concerns by providing information regarding our enabling statutes, the audit standards we must operate under, and the prohibitions that apply to the bureau's release of confidential information and documentation that we obtain during the course of an audit."

Leno said, "Given we're talking about family court, obvious concerns of confidentiality would immediately arise, but the letter (from Reilly) indicates they have worked through that."

Kathleen Russell of the Center for Judicial Excellence, a Marin watchdog organization, said, "This is indicative of the lack of transparency at the Marin County courthouse. In our four years of attempting to get basic information from the court and meet with them and collaborate with them they have always had a stonewall and been very territorial about information that is not confidential. That is why there is such a need for this audit."

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