If the right to obtain justice freely is to be a meaningful guarantee, it
must preclude the legislature from raising general welfare through
charges assessed to those who would utilize our courts.
– Supreme Court of Texas
Courts Are Not Revenue Centers
A quarter of a century ago the Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a set of standards (hereinafter referenced as the “1986 Standards”) related to court filing fees, surcharges and miscellaneous fees in response to a burgeoning reliance upon courts to generate revenue to fund both the courts and other functions of government. The
issue of court revenue – and the relationship of that revenue to funding the courts – remains fresh and relevant and warrants a renewed examination and restatement of the previously adopted standards, couched here as “principles.”
The intersection of court revenues and court funding is complex and includes constitutional, statutory and case law mandates and restraints governing access to justice, governmental revenues, and appropriate uses of court-generated revenue:
• A variety of vehicles to deliver court revenue that are difficult to define consistently and that present different problems or issues depending upon the type of case (civil, criminal or traffic);
• The tension between the public benefit courts provide to society as a whole and the private benefit which inures to individual litigants; and
• The economic and fiscal pressures and practical realities that face legislative bodies and court leadership.
Court leaders must navigate among the particular historical, political and budgetary realities that face the courts and legislative bodies and serve as the backdrop to every new and increased fee or cost in their individual states. For revenue sources attached to civil cases, court leaders must advocate for the principles of access to justice, the balance of public good and private benefit in establishing court fees, and restricting revenue generation to court purposes only. In criminal cases, court leaders have a responsibility not only to ensure that judicial orders are enforced – i.e., fees and fines are collected – but also to ensure that the system does not impose unreasonable financial obligations assessed to fund other governmental services. In traffic infractions, whether characterized as criminal or civil, court leaders face the greatest challenge in ensuring that fines, fees, and surcharges are not simply an alternate form of taxation.
Court leaders must work toward uniformity across their state and be the experts on the typically complex scheme of fees and costs that currently exists, while seeking a more principled and transparent approach.
Full paper below…