The push to raise court fees and fines to help pay for the state’s cash-strapped judicial system is not letting up – and that includes not only criminal cases but civil ones.
The Oklahoma House passed a bill Tuesday that would charge a $25 fee for lawyers and parties who represent themselves in civil court. Other bills would increase criminal fees.
House Bill 2306, which passed 51-42, creates the fees when someone issues a subpoena or files a motion in civil cases to “enter” – a routine move in which the plaintiff formally notifies the court they are ready to move to the trial stage.
These will be tacked on to the flat fee, which can be up to $183 depending on the case, and 10 other fees that are used to supplement funding for county courts.
Some lawmakers are concerned that this could be the latest step to put civil court out of reach of the thousands who can’t afford to hire a lawyer many non-criminal cases such as divorce, child custody, discrimination, housing and employment.
A 2015 state-commissioned report declared this to be a crisis that’s “shocking in its depth and breadth.”
Minority Floor Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, said although the new $25 fee might be modest, it is part of a larger trend that is gradually restricting access to the courts to those who can afford a lawyer.
Lawmakers, for instance, passed a bill last year that added a $5 fee in all civil court cases, increased fees for divorce filings and imposed a 15 percent charge on all fees that benefit non-court entities.
“My question … as a practicing lawyer and someone who cares about our citizens’ rights to access the courts without tremendous financial burdens, is, ‘Should this Legislature stop making people pay to access the courthouse and we in the Legislature should properly fund our courts?’”
Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, presented the bill on behalf of Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who is the lead sponsor. Kannady said he still believes the legislation will keep fees at a “reasonable” level and won’t prevent people from filing lawsuits.
With state appropriations for the judiciary dropping 13.2 percent since 2013, adequate fees are needed to make sure the courts can operate, he added.
“The courts have to run and it’s expensive to run cases, so I think this will help ensure people do continue to have access to the court system by keeping the courthouse open.”
A legislative analysis projects the $25 fee to issue a subpoena in civil cases will bring in about $65,000 for counties each year. But an estimate was unavailable for the motion-to-enter filings since the number of those filings couldn’t be determined, according to the analysis.
Similar efforts to increase criminal fees are also moving through the Legislature. These include:
>SB 38 (passed out of Senate Appropriations Committee): Increases the forensic science improvement assessment from $5 to $10 for convictions of all offenses, except parking violations.
>SB 39 (passed full Senate): Increases a fee for the automated fingerprint identification system fund from $5 to $10 for convictions of all offenses, except parking violations.
>HB 1670 (passed out of House Appropriations and Budget Committee) – Adds a $1 fee for any criminal conviction; money goes to the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training and the General Reserve Fund.
In recent years lawmakers have also incrementally increased court fees instead of using general revenue funds to pay for court-related programs. Last year the Legislature approved a bill that increased fines for dozens of criminal and traffic crimes.
Critics, including judicial representatives who spoke at an interim hearing in October, say this policy is doing more harm than good.
A 2015 Oklahoma Watch investigation found thousands of Oklahomans convicted of non-violent crimes routinely struggle to pay off their debts after leaving jail or prison. The fees begin at the time of arrest and can include costs for each day in jail, a public defender, a jury, a court reporter, a probation officer, an ankle monitor and more.
There are some signs that lawmakers are trying to rein in these fees.
A bill that passed the Senate Public Safety Committee and is awaiting a floor vote would create a task force to study existing fees, fines and court costs and issue a report by Nov. 30, 2019.
Another proposal would offer a one-year grace period for all outstanding fines, fees and costs in criminal cases for those who have served their prison time and completed their probation or supervision requirements. After that time, judges could extend the grace period, set up an installment plan or waive all the fees.
That legislation is also awaiting a Senate floor vote.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.