Court filing fees set for increase


Brenda Davis, a deputy clerk of the court, helps Marcella Harris in the Alachua County Courthouse on Dec. 29.

LARA NEEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 1:10 a.m.
The words "revision to Article V of Florida's Constitution" may not mean a lot to state residents, but the phrase "fee increase" is likely to get their attention.
That will be one of the impacts of the revision, which was meant to shift the responsibility of paying for court services from local to state government. Voters passed the change - which goes into effect this year - in 1998.
As a result, court clerk's offices around the state are supposed to be able to financially support themselves. Starting later this year, that means higher filing fees for civil cases such as divorces.
"Every clerk's office in the state of Florida will then become a fee office. We will depend on the revenues that are generated by this office," said Union County Clerk of Court Regina Parrish.
Fees to file civil cases, under state law, will increase to up to $250 as of July 1.
The charge for filing a civil case in circuit court or a divorce is now $200 in Alachua County.
Ann Moody, with the finance department in the Levy County Clerk of the Court's office, said it's likely most offices around the state will initially increase their fees to the maximum amount.
"There may be a decrease later, once you see how things are going," she said.
The increase will be even more of a sticker shock in Levy County.
Fees in that county now run $78 to file a civil case in circuit court and $145 to $155 to file for divorce, Moody said.
Whether or not other types of civil cases may be subject to the fee increase, such as cases filed in county court, remains unclear, Moody said. Legislators are expected to address the issue this year in Tallahassee, before the fee increase goes into effect.
Some worry the higher fees will preclude lower income residents from accessing the court system.
"If you don't have $200 to $250, for a person who is living on maybe public assistance or maybe minimum wage, that's an astronomical amount of money," said Allison Thompson, executive director of Three Rivers Legal Services. The organization is a nonprofit group that offers free legal services to low-income people.
Thompson said an indigency waiver program is available in some filing cases. But that may change this year.
"My understanding is that there is no waiver, but a payment plan, and you have to pay $40 to set up the payment plan," Thompson said. "I don't know how it works out either if you get a payment plan, and you can't pay. What happens?
"I'm hoping they will rethink the burden on poor people. I'm really concerned about what will happen to our clients."
Free services that some clerk's offices have provided to the public also may fall by the wayside.
"A lot of free services that they've been getting, now clerk's offices will have to start charging for," Parrish said. That would include charging money for copying or notarizing papers.
Staff cuts at clerk's offices are another possible side effect of the revision.
In Clay County, Clerk of the Court James Jett estimates he will reduce personnel by about 12 positions. He plans to cut out those jobs through attrition. What money the office does have will be used to upgrade computer software to help keep up with the workload.
"We're simply going to have to do more for less," Jett said.
Both Parrish and Alachua County Clerk of Court Buddy Irby say it's too early to anticipate all the impacts of the revision on their offices until later this year. But both see staff cuts as a option of last resort. Others say it's not feasible since clerk's offices now are doing more work including reporting information related to the revision to the state.
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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