Court Costs Boosted to Underwrite Nonprofit Legal Services

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July 3, 2011; Source: Star Advertiser | Nonprofits in Hawaii that serve residents unable to pay for legal services will benefit from new legislation that raises fees for filing lawsuits in the state. Over coming years, the increase in surcharges for filing lawsuits should generate nearly five times the money — or about $1.5 million a year by 2014 — currently collected for groups that help low-income residents gain access to the courts. 

Surcharges, which are in addition to regular court costs and filing fees, have been in effect in Hawaii since 1996. At least 28 states have such surcharges, according to the Star Advertiser. This is the first time, however, that Hawaii has raised the rates. The new fees, which go into effect in January, apply to all Circuit Court lawsuits District Court eviction suits and appeals. The newspaper reports that the legislature's decision to raise fees is part of a series of initiatives of the Access to Justice Commission, which was created by the state's supreme court in 2007, following findings from a study that found that "four of five low-income residents don't get the legal help they need." 

Attorney Gary Slovin, a member of the access commission's legislative panel committee, says the higher fees were enacted because many Hawaiians still can't afford legal help "and that seems very unfair."  While supported by groups that provide legal services to low-income residents, the state bar association's collection law section was among those that opposed the measure. It argued that that instead of expanding access to the courts, the higher fees are an unfair and unjust tax that will now make it hard for some people to file suit. Proponents of the surcharge point out that the surcharge is "miniscule" compared to attorney's fees and other costs associated with a lawsuit.

Robert LeClair, executive director of the Hawaii Justice Foundation says even with the additional amount to be collected, he expects overall funding for legal services to be lower than it has been in recent years because of other cutbacks in federal and state funding for nonprofits.—Bruce S. Trachtenberg