Senate passes bill to increase court fees

By Heather Sullivan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It could soon cost you a lot more money to file a lawsuit, get a divorce, or adopt a child. The state Senate has passed a bill to increase court fees. The measure is now in the House.

Senators who passed this bill say it's necessary to raise money to save 1,400 sheriff's deputy jobs across the state. But consumer advocates say the fees will be so high, the court system will no longer mean justice for all, but rather justice for those who can afford it.

The bill proposes increasing the fees you pay when you file court papers, from $27 to $75 in general district court, and in circuit court, where fees currently range from $60 to $110, they'd go up to $500 for cases under $1 million to $1,000 for multi-million dollar cases.

We asked Central Virginia Legal Aid attorney Martin Wegbreit to explain who that would effect. "That makes up the people who are suing other folks for money, or who are suing for things that can only be granted by a circuit court, things like divorces, adoptions, guardianships, restoration of drivers licenses."

Senator Roscoe Reynolds, (D) of Henry County, is working to pass the bill because the money would be designated to save 1,400 sheriff's deputy positions across the state that are currently on the chopping block due to budget cuts.

Said Senator Reynolds, "There are many parts of Virginia the deputy sheriffs are the only law enforcement that's available to the people that live in those communities."

But some consumer advocates fear the fees could make going to court too expensive, especially for lower income people. People with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line can go to court for free, thanks to a 1971 Supreme Court decision. But people with incomes above that level may not be able to afford it, explained Wegbreit, "You're not going to be able to afford a $500 fee earning $8 an hour."

A $500 circuit court fee would be the highest in the country. In Maryland, circuit court is $80, $110 in North Carolina, and $145 in West Virginia. Senator Reynolds doesn't want to raise court fees, but says there are no other proposals that could save the law enforcement jobs. Said Reynolds, "There would be times at night that there would be no law enforcement available to the people that I represent and that's unacceptable."

Wegbreit says if some people cannot afford to use the court system, the fee increase would likely be challenged in court.

The senate passed the bill. It's currently in a House subcommittee.

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