Archive for the ‘access to justice’ Category

Court fee increases threaten middle and low-income Oregonians access to civil justice system

The Oregon budget crisis created a number of problems and many are still coming home to roost. Now the bill has come for the civil justice system.

Effective yesterday, the Oregon Judicial Department implemented new fees for filing lawsuits and routine court matters. Here’s a report in today’s Oregonian.

The new fee system is confusing, in that it’s hard to calculate how much it costs to file a lawsuit. Filing fees morph and shift based upon the amount of money at issue in the case, the number of plaintiffs (people suing) and the number of defendants (people being sued).

The reality is that the new fee increases will have profound impacts, including:

  • For middle- and low-income Oregonians, a day in court will become an unaffordable luxury
  • For attorneys representing people, risks of missing deadlines because fees weren’t paid on time and filings were rejected
  • For attorneys handling contingent fee cases: limiting representation to affluent or limiting who can handle these cases to affluent attorneys who can afford the increased fees
  • For our beloved Oregon, doling out justice based on ability to pay.

It’s that last one that rankles me. Look, it would have been easy to limit my work to rich clients. There’s nothing like the smug security of having corporate clients who pay by the hour for talent.  You get paid as you go. No pay, no go.

But some of us chose a different route because we were committed to a view that justice shouldn’t be limited to corporations that have the money to pay for expensive law firms. For those of us who heard and heeded the different drumbeat, we found ways to answer the call by working on contingent fee cases or finding our way to public interest jobs. That’s how Oregon consumers find skilled and capable representation.

These new fees will make it harder to handle cases.  In addition to higher filing fees, we now have a pay as you go system. Want to file a motion? Pay another filing fee. Need a judge to sign an order? You’re going to have to pay for that. We’re going to wind up in a system in which only the affluent can afford to go forward. Those without means or a very affluent attorney who can front all costs will be turned away.

Some of my colleagues want to blame the Oregon legislature and the Oregon judicial branch for turning to this model of paying for access to justice. Sorry, but it’s not that simple. The reality is that Oregon has suffered mightily in this massive recession and our tax base that relies heavily on income taxes has eroded with the profound increase in unemployment. We lack political will and wisdom to understand that public goods like education, clean water and a civil justice system cost money. That means taxes. It is popular to bash politicians and more so to oppose taxes. All that is well and good and easy. Until you need the cops. Or good schools. Or your day in court.

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