December 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 12 • Page 10
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Study: Court fees and costs are too high, rising too fast
Filing fees and court costs are rising faster than inflation and having a disproportionate impact on the poor, according to a study commissioned by the Illinois General Assembly.
"Illinois imposes a dizzying array of filing fees on civil litigants and court costs on defendants in criminal and traffic cases." So begins the executive summary of the Statutory Court Fee Task Force's June 1, 2016 report, available at http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/2016_Statutory_Court_Fee_Task_Force_Report.pdf.
The Statutory Court Fee Task Force was created pursuant to the Access To Justice Act (705 ILCS 95/25) to "conduct a thorough review of the various statutory fees imposed or assessed on criminal defendants and civil litigants." The task force was composed of members appointed by representatives of both political parties and all three branches of government. The group identified four key findings, which led to six recommendations "that collectively will simplify the imposition, collection, and distribution of assessments while making them more transparent, affordable, and fair."
A 'byzantine system'
Passing costs onto the parties. The first key finding is that as assessments have developed over time, they have become a "byzantine system that attempts to pass an increased share of the cost of court administration onto the parties to court proceedings." Notably, the task force found that assessments undermine the state's goal of providing citizens access to the courts in civil proceedings. They also increase the financial impact of criminal and traffic charges. The task force further found that many assessed fees pay for services that are "wholly unrelated to the court system."
Fees continue to rise. The second finding is that court fees and fines constantly increase and are outpacing inflation. "At a time when many wages are stagnant, these additional assessments are creating further financial strain on low- and moderate-income litigants."
This effect is particularly noticeable for criminal and traffic defendants who end up with "hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in assessments." These assessments are in addition to the punitive financial consequences of criminal and traffic prosecutions.
Wide geographic variance in fees. The third finding was that assessments and their amounts varied widely across the state, even for the same types of proceedings. This variance undermines the fairness of the court system.
Hardest on the poorest. The fourth finding was that the cumulative impact of assessments imposes "severe and disproportionate impacts on low- and moderate-income Illinois residents." Individuals who cannot afford the cost of entry into the system may go without a remedy. Criminal defendants facing exorbitant court debts may have a tougher time reentering society.
Seeking fairness and uniformity
In response to these findings, the task force adopted five core principles to guide its recommendations. First, courts should be substantially funded from the state's general revenue, with reasonable assessments designed to offset the cost of the courts. Second, when assessments become a barrier to access to the courts, they should be waived for litigants such as the indigent and the working poor. Third, assessments should be simple and uniformly applied. Fourth, they should relate directly to funding the court system; special purpose assessments should only be applied to court proceedings related to that purpose. Finally, the General Assembly should periodically review assessments to consider adjusting or repealing them.
With these principles in mind, the task force made recommendations that address its four main findings.
Court Clerk Assessment Act. For example, it has proposed the enactment of the Court Clerk Assessment Act. The Act would group civil cases into four classes. Assigning types of cases to the classes would be the duty of the supreme court. Assessments themselves would be grouped into three categories based on the entity receiving the funds; each category would have its own maximum amount.
The task force likens the proposed legislation to a block grant; the recipient of the funds would decide how to allocate the funds within the Act's limitations. This proposed legislation would not create uniform assessments. Each recipient of funds would be able to set its assessments to any amount up to the cap. This means that while the state treasurer may set assessments that are uniform across the state, court clerks and county treasurers would set their own assessments independently of each other.
Expanded fee waivers. The task force has also proposed an expansion of civil fee waivers. The current statute provides automatic waivers to those who live under 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The proposed amendment would establish a sliding scale waiver that would partially waive assessments for those earning between 125 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Making criminal, traffic fees uniform. Another of the task force's proposals is the enactment of a statute that makes criminal and traffic case assessments uniform throughout the state. The statute would function similarly to the proposed civil assessment statute, with 12 categories of cases with their own established fees. The supreme court would assign cases to the categories based on the nature of the alleged offenses. Counties and circuit clerks would have no power to set assessments, resulting in a uniform system across the state.
Uniform fees for criminal waivers. The task force further recommends that criminal assessments be waived in a manner similar to civil assessments. For minor traffic cases, the group recommends that the maximum assessment be set at $150 for defendants who choose to plead guilty without coming to court.
An assessments checklist for legislators. Finally, the task force has proposed a checklist to guide legislators in making future assessment decisions that are well-considered, consistent, and transparent.