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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.