The Cost of Justice

Rising Costs

Rising Costs

As if stress, paying attorney fees, and other costs of going to court weren’t enough to cope with, those wanting justice are now facing increased fees for nearly everything court-related.

The purpose of the court system is to interpret and apply laws enacted by the legislature. At least, that is what students are told starting in elementary school, reiterated throughout several years of social studies and government classes. In fact, its actual purpose is to provide citizens with a method for seeking justice, whether a neutral party to settle a dispute or redress for an injury or grievance.

However, the state of Alaska, among other states, has assigned the court system another role: that of generating revenue.

Just this month, Alaska increased its fees for anyone filing a case or a form with the court system, as well as for copies of any documents. The State reports that some of the fees have not been increased since around 1990, indicating that the increase is long overdue. This is, of course, a red herring.

There is little dispute that there are costs associated with maintaining a court system, as with any State or Federal office. Forms, copies, clerks of court, judges, (sometimes elaborate) court houses – these all cost money. Increased costs related to inflation and decreased State revenue are also factors that might be considered.

These are not, however, the only – or even the main – reasons for the increased fees. The State wants more revenue. It wants to make money off of its citizens’ troubles. Rather than going to cover rising costs of the administration of court business, the additional money from the increased fees will be going towards the State’s general fund.

The general fund is the overall fund through which the State supports services such as Medicaid, social services, and some road maintenance. For those who subscribe to the idea of government providing services, these may not necessarily be bad expenditures. They are not, however, expenditures related to the running of the court system, a system supposedly guaranteed to be accessible to all.

If courts exist to provide citizens with a method of redress and/or to interpret law, and the costs for accessing the court are rising, citizens with limited resources are necessarily restricted or prohibited from accessing the system meant to protect them. Justice becomes a privilege of the well-off.

As anyone who has attempted to hire an attorney knows, knowledgeable representation is in reality only a viable option for those with thousands of dollars on hand. The average Joe, and even more so the low-income Joe barely pulling in minimum wage, must often do his best by accessing self-help centers and trying to navigate forms and statutes peppered with legalese and archaic writing forms. If he is lucky, his case is assigned a judge that will take into consideration his lack of a law degree and paralegal staff. If he is not, his case can be lost on an obscure technicality such as not using a correct legal term.

And now the State wants to make it even more difficult for our Joe. In order to effectively represent himself, he will need to have (more of) enough cash or credit on hand to even begin filing required court documents. At some point, he will almost undoubtedly need to obtain copies of documents filed with the court; for example, when he files with the court, and the court clerk stamps his forms with the “received on” date, he will want to have a copy of those himself. If for any reason he does not have the required funds (quite plausible), he will not be able to file, nor possibly to even respond to a filing against himself. The court, receiving nothing from Joe, will determine that he is either in agreement, not interested, a deadbeat, or has no case, and in a vast majority of cases will rule against him – thus his case is lost before he even has an opportunity to present his side.

Depending on the type of case, his income, and his willingness to report it to the court, Joe may be able to apply for waivers of some of the fees. Some would argue that this solves the dilemma. It does not. Even if Joe knows about the option to apply for a waiver, how is justice served if he must report his income in order to access the courts, but Wealthy Will does not? Will’s privacy, his representation by a person conversant with law and legal nuance, and his basic right and ability to seek judicial satisfaction are all but guaranteed by his greater economic resources.

For Average Joe, this is not equal access to the law. It is one more way he cannot fight a system already skewed against him.