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Illinois Supreme Court sets civil, criminal fee schedule

Thursday, February 14, 2019
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by David Thomas

The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday published the schedules that will determine how much civil litigants will pay for filings and appearances.

Although the dollar amounts for the various fees were set six months ago, Wednesday’s move determines which case categories fall under which schedule.

The schedules go into effect July 1. Until then, county boards will decide how much their court clerks will charge for filings and appearances, as long as they fall within the limits set in August by Public Act 100-0987.

The new law also created fee schedules for criminal defendants, who will pay a set amount depending on the type of criminal charge. Those fee schedules were codified in the legislation.

Additionally, the Supreme Court enacted a new rule, Rule 404, creating a sliding-scale waiver for court assessments imposed on poor or indigent criminal defendants. The Supreme Court amended Rule 298 to create a similar sliding-scale waiver for civil litigants.

The waivers hinge on the defendant’s or litigant’s income relative to the federal poverty level. If the court finds a defendant or litigant is indigent, all of their fees could be waived.

“Addressing the tangle of fees, fines, surcharges and other costs faced by civil and criminal litigants has been one of the most vexing challenges confronting our justice system,” Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier said in a news release from the court. “Today’s reforms represent a giant step forward in addressing that challenge,” he said.

“The court is confident that implementing these changes will help us achieve a system of justice that is easier to administer, more consistent in its application and more accessible by the people of Illinois,” Karmeier said.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s administrative arm — the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts — has been providing support to court clerks statewide in anticipation of the law’s July 1 effective date.

Cook County Court Clerk Dorothy A. Brown’s office has told the Daily Law Bulletin that it anticipated no difficulties in adapting to the new fee structure. A spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court said representatives from Brown’s office attended the first training session administrative office held last week.

Certain fees have higher caps in Cook County than elsewhere in the state, while other fees have a statewide cap or set amount. Litigants in a chancery case could pay up to $366 and $230, respectively, in filing and appearance fees in Cook County; elsewhere, those caps drop to $316 and $191, respectively.

These fee amounts will be set by the county boards. The Illinois Supreme Court said it “strongly urged” local authorities to review the “five core principles” the Statutory Court Fee Task Force identified.

The task force was the legislatively created, bipartisan body that studied the impact court fees had on civil litigants and criminal defendants. The recommendations the task force issued in 2016 became the legislation that was passed and enacted in 2018.

The principles the task force identified were: That the court system should not primarily be funded by its individual users; that fees should waived if necessary; that court assessments should be simple and easy and fund court operations; and that the Illinois General Assembly should periodically review the court fee system.

“County boards now need to take their steps, and we hope that — that they be concerned about the access-to-justice concerns that motivated this,” said Steven F. Pflaum, a partner at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP who chaired the task force. “What we would hate to have happen is to have all the fees get set at the maximum, authorized levels.”

Asked why the maximum fee levels weren’t lowered if they could undermine the law’s purpose, Pflaum said they had to balance a litigant’s or defendant’s access to justice with the fact that many county court clerks rely on their fees for revenue.

“Ultimately, as with almost all laws, it will require genuine efforts, sincere efforts by responsible public officials to implement the spirit as well as the letter of the law,” Pflaum said.

It will also be up to the county boards to decide how to spend the money it collects from filing and appearance fees. Both the court clerk’s office and the state will take portions of those fees to pay for administrative expenses or statewide programs; the remaining dollars would be deposited into the county’s general fund. From there, the county can allocate that money to fund their law library or child services.

The fee schedules the Illinois Supreme Court published expire Jan. 1, 2021, the same day the underlying public act expires. The sunset provision forces the General Assembly to take up the issue again, or court clerks statewide will lose their statutory authority to collect fees.

The waivers the high court implemented via its rules do not have an expiration date.

Pflaum emphasized in both his statement and in the interview that the publication of these rules and schedules are ultimately one step in a never-ending process.

“This is an important step, but efforts to improve access of justice — it’s not like we can declare victory. It’s an ongoing struggle,” Pflaum said.

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