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Blocking the Courthouse Doors With Excessive Filing Fees

04/26/2009

 

Efforts to raise money for State budgets may deny you access to justice.

Efforts to raise money for State budgets may deny you access to justice.

“Equal Justice For All” is under attack.  A disturbing trend is developing…legislators desperate to fund Courts and state budgets are attempting to escalate filing fees for civil actions.  They seek to allow access to the Courts only with frightening entry charges, an effort which, left unchecked, will deter the use of the justice system. Soon, access to the Courts for many, may mean wealth is required or justice is denied.

In America, we resolve our civil disputes by going to Court. We take it for granted that the Courthouse is always open for the justice system to work itself into a problem and produce an answer.  For years, filing fees have been reasonable, in the $200 to $300 range.  But recently, the cost of being able to sit in front of a judge and have a jury decide your case has gone up.  Now, as the economic crisis lingers, and funding for state and county governments continues to constrict, there is pressure to substantially increase filing fees. As a result, we can no longer take for granted that the liberty of seeking redress in the local Courthouse will remain inviolate.

Budgetary needs are threatening justice…

As states seek funding sources to balance budgets, dangerous ideas are surfacing. Take, for example, what’s brewing in Tallahassee, Florida. At publication time, legislators are considering requiring thousands of dollars to file probate, civil cases, foreclosures, contract cases, claims of indebtedness, declaratory judgment actions, trade secret cases and others. A “graduated filing fee system” is being endorsed by many in the State capitol, and across America. Track Florida Senate Bill 1718.

Imagine, you have a serious accident and want to resolve your dispute in Court. Depending upon the value of your case, your filing fee could be as much as $5,000 in Florida…just to file the case. Contrast that with about $295 at present. Advocates for the wealthy and poor alike are alarmed. Florida Tax Watch, a non-profit watchdog,  issued a report in March, 2008, and found “the filing fees act as a deterrent to court access in some instances.” The institute advocates civil-filing-fee waivers for indigent individuals, since those with the “greatest financial hardships” may defer filing to enforce and protect their rights.

When you die, and you need protection of the probate Courts, your survivors may have to fork over as much as $2,000 if current Florida legislation is successful. Many times that kind of money is not available until the probate process is completed.  On the real estate front, if you are foreclosed, you may have to repay the lender the $1,000 (or up to $2,000) the State is thinking about charging for the initiation of the case against you. That’s on top of what you are adjudicated to owe for the home from which you will be evicted.

USA Today ran an editorial on July 30, 2008 with the subtitle, “Money-grabbing imperils justice.” According to the the attorney author, “…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.” With fees as high as Florida is considering, middle income earners will face the same dilemma. Will the mantra be “debt for justice?”

The idea of balancing budgets by blocking access to the Courthouse for those not wealthy is, at these levels, clearly unconstitutional. While traditionally Courts have been reluctant to determine that filing fees violate equal protection and due process guarantees, never before have filing fees in the thousands of dollars been scrutinized by judicial review. If these fees go into effect, look for long legal battles.

There is a greater danger here. When individuals and businesses cannot afford to initiate cases in the local Courthouse, there may be more resort to self-help remedies. Such an effect will whittle down the judicial protections we enjoy, and move us several steps backwards as a civilized society. As more disputes are resolved outside the judicial system, federal and state constitutional guarantees will deteriorate for greater segments of the population. 

At publication time, we don’t know what the final result will be from Tallahassee or the other state capitals…but one thing can be assured, as filing fees reach unspeakable levels, more litigation will clog the Courts to keep the doors of justice open…if the filing party, of course, can afford the very filing fees he or she seeks to have declared unconstitutional.

How do you feel? Drop us a comment.

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