To the Council of Delegates:
The Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation (OLAF) submitted to the Board of Governors a proposal to increase the legal aid filing fee surcharge by $10.00 [from $15.00 to $25.00] on all court filings currently subject to the surcharge. In addition, it requested that $3.00 be added to the current filing fee for small claims cases and that the filing fee surcharge be extended to decedent estate filings and marriage licenses.
The Board of Governors, at its April 2, 2004 meeting, voted to forward this proposal to the Council of Delegates, without a recommendation, as matters pertaining to funding of civil legal services have been before the Council of Delegates for its consideration on prior occasions.
To refresh the recollection of Council members who have served more than 12 years and to provide background for more recent members, a little history is in order.
A filing fee surcharge was originally adopted in 1985 when the legal aid fund was established by the Ohio General Assembly. In 1992, the Ohio Civil Legal Needs Assessment Implementation Committee, created to implement the recommendation of a study known as the "Spangenberg Report," recommended to the Board of Governors that the civil filing fee surcharge be increased from $4.00 to $25.00 ($10.00 limit in small claims court). This proposed increase was recommended to enhance the delivery of civil legal services to Ohio’s poorest citizens.
The Board of Governors, on April 17, 1992, voted to place the proposal on the agenda of the Council of Delegates with the following resolution:
Resolved, that the Board of Governors supports an increase in the filing fee in civil cases by $21.00 in order to fund implementation of the delivery of legal services to the poor, the critical need for which is demonstrated by The Spangenberg Report;
Further, be it resolved that this increase in filing fees be temporary, for a period not to exceed five years;
Further, be it resolved that the Ohio State Bar Association vigorously advocate in the Ohio General Assembly a permanent method of providing funding for legal services for the poor in Ohio.
On May 13, 1992, the Council of Delegates voted to approve the resolution as submitted by the Board of Governors. The General Assembly increased the surcharge by $11.00 in 1993 and it became permanent in 2001 after surviving several sunset provisions in biennium budget bills. The OSBA followed the mandate of the Council to vigorously advocate for a permanent method of addressing the critical need for indigent legal services, and to do so in a way that would recognize that this is a duty of society as a whole, not just of those who are in a position to need to pay filing fees. These efforts have not been successful, and the prospects for an equitable solution to the problem of funding these legal service needs are slim for the foreseeable future.
We are thus faced with a need for funding, together with a political environment where a fair and just source of funding is not currently possible. Adding to the filing fees may be an appropriate stopgap measure to avoid hardship for the most needy among us; on the other hand, such an increase may become permanent, and it may have the effect of letting legislators "off the hook". Your Board of Governors discussed these issues in great detail, and came to the conclusion that the previous action of the Council made it most appropriate for the Council to revisit the question of funding legal service needs at this time.
OLAF submitted the following Summary Report for an increase in the legal civil filing fee surcharge along with a report describing the history of the funding for civil legal services and proposed amendments to the relevant statutes.
It is before you for your consideration.
Keith A. Ashmus
Summary request for an increase
in the legal aid filing fee surcharge
To increase the legal aid filing fee surcharge by $10 (and $3 for small claims cases) on all court filings currently subject to the surcharge; and, to apply the legal aid filing fee surcharge to decedent estate filings and marriage license applications.
The estimated $8 million in additional proceeds generated by the requested changes to the legal aid filing fee will help stabilize state funding for basic legal aid services in Ohio and improve the delivery of a full-range of civil legal services to low-income people statewide and in each geographic region of the state.
An increase in the legal aid filing fee surcharge is justified for the following reasons:
• The additional revenue offers an important infusion of dollars to Ohio’s legal aid delivery system, which has experienced decreased funding from federal and local sources, as well as decreased IOLTA/IOTA proceeds resulting from historically low interest rates.
• The increase amount closely parallels the effect of inflation on the surcharge since 1993, when the Ohio General Assembly adopted the last increase in the legal aid filing fee surcharge.
• A surcharge increase offers the only viable option to enhance public support for legal services given the crisis facing Ohio’s general revenue fund.
• The impact on courts and clerks of court will be minimal. The surcharge’s statutory provisions permit courts to retain one percent of collections. Other than the initial, minimal cost to make the surcharge adjustment, there should be no additional cost to the courts in order to implement the new surcharge.
• The impact on court filing fees will also be minimal. Statewide, the average deposit amount for a civil case in common pleas court is approximately $178, which is slightly higher than the national average. Even with the $10 increase, the legal aid surcharge is less than thirteen percent of the statewide average deposit amount. The average deposit in county and municipal courts is even less, $77 and $75, respectfully. The decedent estate deposit average, which does not include the legal aid surcharge, is only $128. The average marriage application fee is $41.
• The surcharge increase represents the strong public policy to reduce the number of poor Ohioans without access to justice – it is estimated that Ohio has the resources to meet only 25% of the legal needs of its poor residents.
• Civil legal aid makes a difference in the lives of individuals and families - it helps people gain access to justice and secure their rights under the law, which are the fundamental principals of our justice system and our society.