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Pennsylvania Bar Association says public should not make up court and legal services budget shortfalls through large filing fee increases

HARRISBURG (July 23, 2009) - Pennsylvania Bar Association President Clifford E. Haines today said the public should not have to pay large increases in court filing fees to fund any budget shortfalls for Pennsylvania's court system and civil legal services.

Haines said House Bill 1861, as proposed, would impose a filing fee increase of $23 on all court filings - except traffic summary offenses - to make up the entire gap between the current budget proposals offered by the courts and the governor, House and Senate. Haines said the PBA could not support a provision of HB 1861 that would eliminate the Legislature's responsibility to fund civil legal services by shifting funding to the users of the legal system.

"The people most in need of the justice system will suffer the harshest impact of increased court filing fees," said Haines. "The courts have never been a "user pays" service any more than the Legislature or basic elements of the executive branch are "user pays" services.

The PBA House of Delegates voted June 4, 2009, to support a filing fee increase to help alleviate the current economy's impact on the commonwealth, but Haines said the critical term is "to help." He said that while filing fees recognize some responsibility on the part of the users of the justice system to help pay for it, citizens should not be called upon to fund all of an existing shortfall.

Haines said the PBA has been a vocal advocate on behalf of full funding for the Pennsylvania court system and Pennsylvania Legal Services and is sympathetic to the plight of the courts and legal services providers who are supporting the filing fee increases because of the uncertainties of the state budget.

"We recognize that critical times mean compromise that would otherwise be unpalatable," explained Haines. "We will continue to support the Pennsylvania court system and civil legal services, but we simply do not believe that, at this time, House Bill 1861 is the answer."

Editor's Note: Below is the text of a letter sent by PBA President Clifford E. Haines to the chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee concerning House Bill 1861.

From the Office of the President, Pennsylvania Bar Association

July 21, 2009

The Honorable Thomas Caltagirone The Honorable Ron Marsico
Chairman, House Judiciary Committee Minority Chairman, House Judiciary Committee
106 Irvis Office Building 218 Ryan Office Building
PO Box 202127 PO Box 202105
Harrisburg, PA 17120-2127 Harrisburg, PA 17120-2105

Dear Chairmen:

On behalf of the nearly thirty-thousand members of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, I would like to comment on House Bill 1861 scheduled for discussion by your committee on Tuesday morning, July 21.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association has been a vocal advocate on behalf of full funding for the Pennsylvania Court system and Pennsylvania Legal Services. We believe this branch of government and social agency are an integral part of the fundamental protections of Pennsylvania citizens, particularly in critical economic times. All too often, people who suffer the most severely by economic hardship need to turn to the courts for help. The courts have never been a "user pays" service any more than the legislature or basic elements of the executive branch are user pays services.

By the same token, we recognize that critical times mean compromise that would otherwise be unpalatable. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Bar Association passed, on June 4, 2009, a resolution supporting a filing fee increase to help alleviate the current economy's impact on the Commonwealth. We believe the critical term is "to help". While filing fees recognize some responsibility on the part of the users of the system to help pay for it, they should not be called upon to fund all of an existing shortfall.

House Bill 1861, based on the information provided to us to date, would put all of the responsibility for the gap between the budget proposal of the Court and the presently proposed budgets of the Governor, House and Senate on this fee increase. Similarly, the bill's allocation to legal services would eliminate the legislature's responsibility and shift it to the users of the legal system. As a result, we cannot support House Bill 1861 in its present form.

Most lawyers' clients are people without a voice who turn to the court system for help. Our job as lawyers is, first and foremost, to be advocates for those clients.

The people most in need of the system will suffer the harshest impact from House Bill 1861. We will continue to fight for those people and support the Pennsylvania Court system and Legal Services. We simply do not believe that, at this time, House Bill 1861 is the answer.

Sincerely yours,

Clifford E. Haines, Esq.
President

cc: House Judiciary Committee Members