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Conn. increases court fees to boost aid to poor

By Dave Collins
Associated Press / June 16, 2012
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HARTFORD, Conn.—Connecticut is increasing court filing fees in certain civil and family cases, a change intended to raise extra money to help the state's neediest residents handle legal problems ranging from eviction to domestic violence.

Legal aid to the poor has taken huge hits across the country because a main source of revenue, interest from lawyers' trust accounts, dried up amid the recession and low interest rates. Nationwide, revenue from trust account interest dropped 74 percent from $371 million in 2007 to $95 million in 2010, according to the latest available data compiled by the American Bar Association.

In Connecticut, trust account interest revenue for legal aid for the poor plummeted from $20 million in 2008 to only $1 million this year, according to the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which administers funding for the state's legal aid programs. The result has been reductions to staff and services at the three legal aid providers in the state.

"The effect on legal aid programs in Connecticut and the country has been devastating," said Susan Nofi-Bendici, deputy executive director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, which has cut a third of its staff and is helping 1,000 fewer people a year since the funding crisis began in 2009.

The state Judicial Branch stepped in to fill the void when the funding collapsed, providing $7 million from court fees a year and an additional annual grant of $1.5 million. The Connecticut Bar Foundation expects to give out $13.5 million in legal aid funding this year, down from $20.7 million in 2008, said foundation executive director Sandy Klebanoff.

But without the extra money from the new fee increases, the legal aid providers say they would have to cut more staff and services. The new fees are expected to generate an extra $5 million a year.

"Without this recent action by the governor and legislature, we would have had to lay off a quarter more of the staff," said Steven Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, which already has cut staffing by 10 to 15 percent through attrition in recent years.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the fee increase bill June 6. The new fees will end July 1, 2015, when officials hope interest rates and lawyer trust account balances will have rebounded.

A variety of court filing costs will increase July 1. Fees for filing civil cases will rise from $300 to $350. Filing small claims cases will cost $90, up from $75. There also will be a new $200 fee for filing counterclaims and cross complaints in civil cases, which had been free.

The biggest fee increase will be on filing motions to allow lawyers from out of state who are not admitted to the Connecticut bar to represent clients in state courts. There is no charge now, but there will be a $600 cost when the new fees kick in July 1.

The fees will bring in an extra $7.2 million a year, with $5 million going to legal aid for the poor and $2.2 million being spent on maintaining and improving the Judicial Branch's information processing system.

Several people opposed the higher fees during legislative hearings on the proposal, saying they were unfair to low-income people who can't afford lawyers and represent themselves in court. But others said that they benefited from legal aid programs and that the increases were vital.

Eppler-Epstein and Nofi-Bendici said legal aid services have been declining at a time when demand is greater because the recession pushed more people into poverty. Legal aid groups have been handling more cases of people fighting eviction during foreclosures, more cases involving unemployment compensation disputes and more cases of family violence.

The drop in legal aid has forced many people to represent themselves in court and deterred many others from even going to court to fight for their rights, legal aid providers say.

On Monday, state Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers gave a speech to the Connecticut Bar Association in which she said her biggest concern is the increasing number of people representing themselves in court. She said 85 percent of family cases had at least one party representing themselves and 28 percent of civil cases had at least one self-represented party in the 2011 fiscal year.

"We are going to have serious problems continuing to provide quality justice unless we tackle this issue head on," Rogers said.

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