New court fees to affect citizens, lawyers, reporters

  • By MICHAEL ARMSTRONG AND MEGAN PACER
  • Thursday, August 20, 2015 8:48pm
  • News

The state of Alaska has increased its court fees to, in part, make up for declining revenue.

A new rule raising state court fees that started Aug. 1 will lead to increased costs for everyone from citizens to lawyers, and reporters.

Earlier this month, an Alaska Court System Rule of Administration was amended to increase fees for both filing and copying. Administrative Rule 9, which governs the fees Alaska courts can charge for those services, was updated to increase the fees and address other “housekeeping” concerns, said Court Rules Attorney Laura Bottger.

Bottger said that while the rule amendment came partially as a response to recent government budget cuts, it has been on the administration’s radar for a while.

“This came internally. We’ve kind of had our list,” Bottger said. “Then when people realized, ‘Oh wow, look at the price of oil,’ and things were just crashing so much, that was kind of a wake-up call to everybody.”

According to the amendment proposal, the new revenue created by the increased fees will go to the state’s general fund, not the Alaska Court System. While most changes were made to filing fees, the section of the rule pertaining to copying fees will have an adverse affect on anyone requesting copies of court documents.

Due to the rule amendment, copying fees rose from 25 cents per page to $5 dollars per document — affidavits, judgments, etc. — and $2 dollars for every second document requested at the same time.

“It is common, every 10 or 15 years there’s an increase in fees,” Bottger said. “These copying fees haven’t been changed since 1990 or earlier.”

Andy Haas, a Homer criminal defense lawyer, said he does not expect the copying fee change to affect him. Haas often takes on cases through the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy for defendants receiving court appointed attorneys, and thus any copying charges would be one state agency billing another.

Another Homer lawyer, Gwen Neal, who practices family and criminal law, said the increase in copying and other fees could have an adverse effect on people working on cases pro se – without help from a lawyer.

“I see it being problematic for the person who is already marginalized in their financial status,” she said. “I see that as a potential problem with access to justice. For someone trying to do their own work in a situation like that, civil or criminal, that’s potentially a lot of money.”

The rate increases will have a minimal impact on South Peninsula Haven House in Homer, which provides shelter and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said Haven House executive director Jessica Lawmaster. Advocates help clients file paperwork to get court fees waived.

“We do have concerns about victims of domestic violence who are navigating the court system without any support and may not understand their ability to have fees waived, or simply may not have the money to pay for copies if they are not eligible for waived fees,” Lawmaster said.

According to emails included in a rules referral memorandum for Administrative Rule 9, Alaska courts have seen an increase in requests for court judgments since that information was eliminated from CourtView, an online resource for viewing court cases.

The requests come mainly from background check companies and defendants, the emails read, and are increasing the workload for clerks. The emails in the memorandum show a flat rate of $5 for documents was suggested as a way to compensate for increased time spent copying.

Another group that regularly utilizes court records is the media. In April, the Peninsula Clarion collected 419 pages worth of court documents. In June, it collected 554. Under the old administrative rule, those monthly bills would come to about $105 and $139, respectively.

To accumulate a bill of $105 under the new rule, the Clarion could be requesting as few as 21 pages if each page was a separate document.

Bottger said anyone has the power to propose an amendment to the Administrative Rules. Other potential solutions include viewing court documents without having them copied, or getting documents directly from parties involved in cases, Bottger said. Information on criminal charges filed and disposed is listed weekly on the court system website.

However, information contained in Courtview’s overview of cases is lacking in the same level of detail that can be obtained by requesting to review a case file. According to Alaska’s open records law, a public agency has the option to waive a fee “when the public agency determines that the reduction or waiver is in the public interest.”

D. John McKay is a lawyer practicing in Anchorage who takes special interest in First Amendment law. Extensions of the judicial branch of Alaska’s government are neither included nor expressly exempted from the Alaska’s open records law definition of a public agency.

“I think I’ve always felt we’ve never tested it,” McKay said.

McKay said since Alaska’s open records law does not expressly exempt courts from the definition of a public agency, he would interpret them to be covered by the law, and therefore able to waive fees in the public interest. At the same time, he said, there is nothing in the law that requires courts to waive fees for that reason. The open records law also states that courts may “establish by court rule reasonable fees” of their own for copying services.

“You could make the argument that the statute provides for this (waiving fees),” McKay said. “On the other hand, it says the courts can set up their own regulations. I would think that you should still be able to ask.”

Bottger said, to her knowledge, Alaska courts have not waived copying fees based on public interest requests.

“We’re kind of a different entity,” Bottger said. “I don’t think that’s covered by our rules.”

The rule change and new fee structure was not granted a public comment period. Bottger said the new rule was considered “internal,” and was therefore not opened for public comment.

A proposed new rule, the e-distribution rule, to be labeled Civil Rule 5.3, could serve as a gap between access to documents through paper files and electronic records, Bottger said. The rule would allow court records to be distributed electronically to attorneys, agencies, court-appointed guardians, private organizations, companies or agencies the court refers parties to for services.

Proposed Civil Rule 5.3 would be a bridge toward “a true e-filing system,” Bottger said.

“We’re kind of in the midst of trying to get that together. We’re building on the foundations pieces to make this happen, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “We’re still woefully in the paper world for at least a few years.”

The public can comment on that rule until Aug. 24.

Megan Pacer can be reached at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com. Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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