House joins Senate in approving civil filing fee bump
The House of Delegates this morning approved raising the cost of filing a lawsuit -- money that would be used to support civil legal services for the poor. Lawmakers this year have looked to fees as a way to fund social programs hard hit by the economy.
The House plan is more moderate than what the Senate approved earlier this month. Delegates want to charge $130 for Circuit Court filings, instead of the $105 they now cost. (The Senate approved raising the cost to $150.) Under the House plan, District Court filing fees would go up by $7 or $15, compared to the $10 or $20 increase approved by the Senate.
Delegates also demanded more financial reporting from Maryland Legal Services Corp., the recipient of the additional fees, and want the increases to end after three years. The two proposals must be reconciled before the 90-day legislative session ends April 12. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, warned his colleagues that he will not support the Senate plan. Other delegates, including House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County, opposed even the moderate fee increase.
O'Donnell said it's unfair to "nickel and dime citizens" in the midst of a bad economy, regardless of the cause that money supports.
The court fees would be used to prop up legal assistance in foreclosure filings, child custody battles and landlord-tenant disputes -- civil cases where poor people are not entitled to a lawyer, unlike in criminal cases.
Legal aid revenue has been walloped even as those services are more in demand than ever, advocates say. A traditional source of funding -- interest accrued on lawyers' trust accounts -- is quickly drying up because interest rates are so low. Maryland Legal Services Corp., which distributes money to about three dozen free legal clinics across the state, estimates interest this year will generate about $2 million for them, down from $6.7 million in 2008.
The House plan would provide about $4 million in new money for legal services, delegates said.
Other court fees, including extra charges for divorce petitions in Prince George's County and marriage licenses in Baltimore City, are under consideration this year. Revenue from those increases would be used to support domestic violence programs.