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Attorneys Predict Hardship From Hikes in Fla. Court Fees"Justice is going to be very expensive." That's how the supervising attorney in the housing unit of Broward Legal Services in Plantation, Fla., describes the impact -- particularly on the poor -- of legislatively mandated increases in 144 court fees taking effect statewide today. Seeking justice through the court system may no longer be obtainable for low-income people, he says. The state of Florida itself is claiming poverty. Budget cuts have produced a wave of courthouse layoffs.
Daily Business Review2008-07-01 12:00:00 AM
"Justice is going to be very expensive."
That is how David Mankin, supervising attorney in the housing unit of Broward Legal Services in Plantation, Fla., describes the impact -- particularly on the poor -- of legislatively mandated increases in 144 court fees taking effect statewide today. Even the fee to apply for indigent status, which lets poor litigants pay other court costs in installments rather than all at once, goes up by 20 percent from $40 to $50.
Seeking justice through the court system "wasn't free before, but it was obtainable" for low-income people, Mankin said. The increases may change that, he said.
"These are pretty significant increases in the costs to get into the courthouse," he said. "It's really a hardship on the tenants" who sue landlords to get them to address problems such as broken air conditioning.
West Palm Beach, Fla., solo practitioner Dennis Koehler, a former county commissioner, said the new and higher fees also will hit hard at people who want to file their own cases instead of using a lawyer. "It's going to hit the pocketbooks of the folks who file pro se," he said. "It's the little guy that's going to be hurt."
Ross Baer, the supervising family law attorney at the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society, said he is bothered by the increase in the cost of filing for divorce and a new fee to file a counterpetition. Divorce petitions cost $409, up 12 percent from $364, and the new fee for a counterpetition in a divorce case is $295.
"My clients couldn't afford the $364; the $409 is really difficult," he said. "It's going to cost $295 when it used to cost nothing. The impact on people who don't have money in today's economy obviously is not good."
But the state also is claiming poverty. Budget cuts produced 34 courthouse layoffs also effective today in South Florida, and more vacant positions were eliminated.
Baer acknowledged "it's probably fair to have a user fee" to help cover the cost of providing court services, but he said, "I don't think it's fair to have a user fee for people who can't afford it."
Palm Beach County Clerk of the Court Sharon Bock said in an interview that the new and higher fees are designed to raise $121 million statewide. She did not know how much would be raised locally. The entire amount will go into the state's general revenue pool, she said, but only $75 million, or 61 percent of the new collections, will be earmarked for courts, prosecutors and public defenders. Even though she operates a fee-based office, Bock said none of the new fees will reach her. She said the state Legislature decided which fees would go up and by how much, and her office had nothing to do with the decisions, even though her office is the collection point.
Bock said she shares the concerns of attorneys representing the poor about the issue of access to courts.
"All of us are very concerned about access to the courts for the poor," she said. "We're going to be watching it extremely closely."
The Legislature hiked the fees to avoid even deeper funding cuts and minimize the number of layoffs. The largest increase in terms of dollars and percentage is for tenant eviction. The old fee of $80 has more than tripled to $270. On the other end of the scale, some fees are rising only 50 cents or $1. Nearly 30 current fees, such as the $93.50 to apply for a marriage license, did not change.
The fee to file a case in circuit court has increased 18 percent to $301 from $256.
Mankin noted "these are lean, mean times" economically, and expressed the hope that "once the economy flips around, they might even consider reducing fees."