Trial court fees to increase next week

Published 11:00 pm Friday, June 15, 2012

About 500 employees from the state’s trial court system won’t lose their jobs but court fees in most civil and criminal cases will be going up as part of a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature.

“Had this not passed, we had been notified that we would be cut to a staff of just me and one other,” said Pike County Circuit Clerk Jamie Scarbrough. “It would have been completely devastating.”

On top of the local staffing cutbacks, Scarbrough said an additional plan to save money would have allowed for opening the business office to the public only one day a week.

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That, Scarbrough said, would have meant a delay for the prosecution of cases, a delay in both guilty and innocent inmates going to trial, and a delay in victims seeing punishment for criminals.

“We’re happy about this,” Scarbrough said. “Justice delayed is justice denied, period, in any situation.”

Although employees at the clerk’s office work until 5 p.m. each day, public access hours had already been shortened with doors to the office closing at 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and closing at noon on Wednesday.

In exchange for saving jobs, the new law also adds a $35 upfront filing fee on each bond executed in a criminal case to be paid by the surety, and adds a bail bond fee of 3.5 percent of the face value of the bail bond to be paid by the defendant upon conviction. The bail bond fee is limited to $450 for misdemeanors and $750 for felonies.

The court cost increases and the $35 bail bond filing fee will be effective on June 21. Traffic cases are included in that category.

The other portion of the bond fee will become effective on Aug. 1.

Docket fees will increase by $15 in small claims cases, $26 in traffic cases, $40 in criminal cases, and $45 in district and circuit civil cases, including domestic relations cases. Juvenile cases and child support cases will not be affected.

Ten dollars of the new fee will be retained by the municipal clerk or judge for each municipal case where there is an existing municipal court, and $2 collected in each traffic case will go to the Peace Officer’s Annuity Fund.

Scarbrough said she understands the cost increases aren’t good news for everyone, but she hopes people will understand it was necessary to avoid a massive statewide layoff. She also suggests people do their best to do any filing before the June 21 fee increase.

The revenue generated by the increase in docket fees will be retained within the court system, with one-third of the it being retained locally to be used by the clerk and presiding judge for local court administration purposes. The revenue generated by the bail bond fees will be divided between the district attorney, sheriff and the state or municipal court clerk. A portion of the fee will also go to the Department of Forensic Sciences and the general fund.

But there is an expiration date on the new law. The increase in court fees will expire on August 30, 2015, unless extended by the Legislature.

“This is just a Band-Aid on a real big problem,” Scarbrough said. “It’s only going to be a temporary fix. We don’t know what is going to happen after 2015. We might be right back in the same shape we were in before.”

The last statewide court cost increase occurred in 2004. However, the revenue generated from that increase was earmarked for the general fund and not the operation of the court system.