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Court Fees As Revenue?

Money grabbing imperils justice when state legislatures view the courts as another revenue stream.

  • Rebekah Diller
July 30, 2008

* Cross-posted from USA Today.

Money Grabbing Imperils Justice 

Along with gas and food, another staple is getting more expensive this summer: justice.

Court fees around the country are on the rise. In some states, including Florida and Kentucky, the increases are prompted by state fiscal crises. In Colorado and other states, the increases are being used to fund new court buildings.

Filing fees are often appropriate and valuable tools for funding critical parts of the justice system. But the integrity and independence of the courts are jeopardized when legislatures regard the courts as revenue-generators. Without proper safeguards, the increases make it harder for low-income litigants to get their fair day in court.

State judiciary systems take up a tiny proportion of total state budgets, between 1% and 3%, on average. Yet many legislatures assume that the judiciary should be largely self-sustaining. When times are tight, they expect the courts to raise funds through civil filing fees, surcharges, and mandatory assessments heaped on largely indigent criminal defendants. Worse, states increasingly look to courts not just to fund themselves but also to boost revenue for other government functions.

Florida leads way

Consider Florida’s new court fees, which went in effect July 1. Faced with a budget crisis, Florida has raised its filing fees to among the highest in the country: $300 for most civil cases, $397.50 for divorce and $270 for eviction actions. Florida does not, as do other states, waive civil filing fees for indigent litigants. Instead, court clerks negotiate payment plans with those unable to pay up front  —  and add a surcharge for paying over time.

Florida is also putting the squeeze on criminal defendants, most of whom are indigent. Those who cannot afford their own lawyer must pay $50 to apply for a constitutionally mandated public defender. If convicted, they face assessments for the costs of prosecution and defense regardless of their ability to pay. These charges are added to other assessments.

Defies logic

When the defendant can’t pay, the court often takes away his driver’s license, ensuring he won’t be able to do the one thing necessary to pay the debt: work.

Perhaps the worst feature of Florida’s court fees is the fact that only 61% of the new fee collections will go toward funding courts, prosecutors and public defenders, according to a recent news report. The rest will go to the state’s general revenue fund.

Across the country, legislatures and courts should affirm basic principles to preserve access to justice. Fairness requires that court fees be waived for the indigent. Fee waivers also ensure that scarce resources aren’t spent chasing down those who can’t pay.

Legislatures and courts should also perform an impact analysis of all new fees to determine how access to justice will be affected. For criminal fees, policymakers should consider the amount of sanctions already paid by criminal defendants and the effect on public safety of heaping debt on those who can’t pay.

Such measures won’t eliminate appropriate fees but will ensure that courts remain forums for justice, not vehicles for tax collection.