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With just two courthouses, Santa Cruz County has one of the smaller court systems in the Bay Area.
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With a population of just under 275,000, Santa Cruz County not surprisingly has a relatively small system of Superior Courts. Only two courthouses serve the legal needs of the entire county. But the court system also offers online options for getting the legal process under way, whether a case involves a lawsuit, a traffic ticket, a family law matter or any one of numerous other conflicts that can be resolved only by the courts. Those range from minor matters such as neighborhood disputes, to serious crimes—for those unfortunate enough to be accused of one of those—from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, all the way up to murder.
Using the Santa Cruz Superior Court “Odyssey Guide and File” site, potential litigants can complete legal paperwork from home after going through an online “interview.” But the court cautions that failing to use the online system correctly can seriously screw things up for anyone planning to file documents with the court.
That’s why the court pulls no punches in encouraging people to contact the Santa Cruz Superior Court Self Help Center before completing an online interview. But by “Self Help,” the court actually means, “without a lawyer.” People who don’t have an attorney of record can use the services of a Self Help Center Family Law Facilitator or Small Claims Advisor. Resources for legal issues such as restraining orders, guardianships, breach of contract lawsuits, and other matters are also available at the center, which is located in the Superior Court system’s Watsonville courthouse.
The Self Help Center, however, can also help online users figure out if they are completing the correct interview. This is a rather important detail, because filling out the wrong one can end up delaying your case, forfeiting your filing fee, or as the court’s website puts it, “not getting the legal results you want.”
Also worth noting, in almost all types of legal cases, the Odyssey Guide and File system helps only in generating and completing legal forms. The forms can be printed out at home, but must be delivered in person to the court clerk’s office at the Watsonville courthouse.
The only exception is for Small Claims Court filings, which may be e-filed. Small claims court is reserved for lawsuits where the amount of a claim is less than $10,000. And as anyone who had ever watched Judge Judy is aware, lawyers are not permitted in Small Claims Court. Instead, the two litigants fight it out in front of a judge, who decides who wins and who loses.
The Watsonville courthouse sits at 1 Second Street. The building is open from 8 am to 3 pm, and in addition to housing the clerk’s office which handles court filings, the Watsonville facility is also the site of the county’s juvenile and family courts. Traffic cases also go through Watsonville. Santa Cruz County Small Claims Court is also located there as well.
The main Santa Cruz County courthouse is located at 701 Ocean Street in Santa Cruz, in a modern complex, known as Government Complex, constructed in 1966. A single-story structure of concrete and glass adjoins a five-story administrative wing through an atrium on the south side of the courthouse.
The previous Santa Cruz County courthouse was built in Santa Cruz in 1896, and managed to mostly get through the Great Earthquake of 1906, though the structure needed to be rebuilt. But it then remained the county courthouse until 1967, when the courts moved to their current location in the newly built complex on Ocean Avenue.
The old courthouse remained standing as an office and retail building until 1989, when another earthquake—the Loma Prieta quake—caused it such great damage that it was later simply torn down.
The new (though now actually 55-year-old) courthouse is where criminal and civil cases in Santa Cruz County are heard, as well as probate matters—that is, cases involving wills and distribution of family assets held by deceased persons. Traffic issues can also go through the main courthouse in Santa Cruz.
On March 17, 2020, both Santa Cruz courthouses were forced to close down for all but constitutionally required services, due to the coronavirus pandemic crisis. But in June, the courts resumed most of their day-to-day functions, with most employees returning to work, with daily health screenings. Social distancing and masking requirements were also in place. By March of the following year, most court departments were up and running, albeit with some modifications
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