Attorney Steven F. Pflaum of Chicago is hoping this year will mark the beginning of the end of rising court fees in the state's judicial system.
“This was increasingly becoming a system where the litigants are expecting to pay a good chunk of the cost, and that’s problematic,” said Pflaum, chairman of the 15-member Statutory Court Fee Task Force created by the Access to Justice Act to study and make recommendations for improving the system.
“On the civil side, the amount of court fees have been skyrocketing over the last several years," Pflaum said.
Critics of the current court system are hoping Pflaum, partner and co-chair of the litigation practice group at the law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, will help lead the way toward a fairer and more just system for all.
As it is, Pflaum and his panel of lawmakers, judges and attorneys have concluded that the current system “imposes a dizzying array of filing fees on civil litigants and court costs on defendants in criminal and traffic cases.”
The Statutory Court Fee Task Force report, compiled with assistance from the Winnebago County Circuit Court staff, noted that “skyrocketing fees in civil cases in recent years have effectively priced many of our state’s most economically vulnerable citizens out of the opportunity to participate in the court system. Similar increases in court costs for criminal and traffic proceedings now often result in financial impacts that are excessive for the offense in question and disproportionate to the fines that are intended to impose an appropriate punishment for the offense.”
Task force members also found variations in the system from one jurisdiction to the next further complicate the problem, injecting raised levels of arbitrariness and bias into court case outcomes.
Pflaum and the task force further concluded that many counties are now effectively using the court fees as a form of taxation, rather than as a means to pay for court administrative costs, with all the dysfunction coming at a deep cost to those who can least economically afford it.
“We’re recommending standardizing fees and also recommending making waivers available,” he said.
Without much rhyme or reason, researchers noted that since 2000, civil filing fees across various Illinois counties have increased.
To counter at least some of that, Pflaum’s panel has also proposed legislation calling for the allocation of permissible ranges for filings and other fees based on case type. The new system would also include establishing limited fees for defendants who pleaded guilty to minor traffic offenses where no appearance before a judge is required.
Pflaum stressed that he and the task force didn’t find the system to be any more equitable in the criminal courts division.
“On the criminal side, we’re not talking about fines, but when you’re punished there are costs,” he said. “Some of the fees and costs were just out of line.”
Pflaum added that many fees tacked onto various fines have little or nothing to do with the type of case being brought before the court.
“Where do these fees go?” he said. “What happens is some legislator will come up with a bright idea of let’s add a couple of bucks to the fee so we can fund this or that program. The cumulative impact is all these little fees and costs have been astronomical. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”
Among other proposals put forth by the task force is expanding the current law that automatically waives the civil fees for individuals falling at least 125 percent under the federal poverty level to 200 percent.
With fee structures often being based solely on the county where legal proceedings are being held, Pflaum is also pushing for more uniformity in the way criminal and traffic case fines are assessed, with counties and circuit clerks being completely removed from the equation when it comes to setting fine amounts.
Other findings of the task force are that court fines and fees are outpacing inflation, with plaintiffs typically forced to dole out several hundred dollars simply to file a case. In addition, civil defendants, who lack any say in whether to become involved in litigation, are often required to pay hundreds of dollars to defend themselves or risk a default judgment, and criminal and traffic defendants frequently leave court only after having been forced to pay out up to thousands of dollars in assessments on top of the fines imposed by the court as fair punishment.
Given all those inequities and more, Pflaum said the task force’s report recommends that the Illinois General Assembly enact a schedule for court assessments that promotes affordability and transparency through the Court Clerk Assessment Act.
Under such a statute, variations across counties would be reduced and four classes of civil cases would be recognized with each of them adhering to different assessment schedules where cases are assigned to them by the state Supreme Court.
The task force also proposes the adoption of the Criminal/Traffic Assessment Act, which would establish fees for various classes of criminal and traffic cases.
Finally, the task force proposes a modification of the process by which fines for minor traffic offenses not requiring a court appearance, fixing the total assessment in all such matters at $150 and completely severing the link between bail and fine amounts.
“Legislation has been introduced and we're optimistic,” Pflaum said. “The bill will be reintroduced in spring session and sponsors are optimistic about getting it through.”