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Steep hike in court costs
Leaders say move rationing justice
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Forsyth County News
If you want to sue someone in court, be prepared to pay more to file that lawsuit. A lot more.

Filing fees and add-ons for lawsuits filed in Georgia’s state and superior courts are now more than double what they once were.

Due to a new law passed by the state legislature and signed May 13 by Gov. Sonny Perdue, a lawsuit that used to cost $109.50 to file in Forsyth County will now cost $259.50.

Forsyth County Clerk of Court Greg Allen said the base filing fee increased from $84.50 to $209.50 and the sheriff’s service fee doubled from $25 to $50.

Allen said his office provided a grace period May 13 and 14, but began strictly enforcing the increases May 17.

He notified local attorneys through e-mail of the increase and said so far he hasn’t had too many problems with the change.

“Of course no one likes the increase, but no complaints,” he said.

Allen posted a notice about the changes on the clerk’s office Web site along with a new list of court costs and recording fees.

He’s also posted the changes in the clerk’s office, which include the doubling of the cost of uncertified copies of records from 25 cents per page to 50 cents per page.

“I would say the biggest complaint, which we have not experienced directly yet, but the attorneys are talking about how appeals to the [Georgia] court of appeals or [Georgia] supreme court went from $1.50 per page for my copy of the record to $10 per page,” Allen said. “You’re talking thousands of dollars to appeal something now, many more thousands than before.”

For example, a 5,000-page appeal that used to cost $7,500 now costs $50,000.

“It will prohibit many people from being able to appeal a case,” said Gainesville attorney Wyc Orr, who is critical of the price hikes. Those who do appeal will face more attorney fees to cull the trial record down to a more affordable length, he said.

Orr noted the words of the late judge Learned Hand, “Justice shall not be rationed.”

“When the legislature passes these kinds of fee increases, they ration justice,” Orr said. “They limit access to the courts.”

Orr has no confidence that the new money brought into the state general fund from the fees will fund judicial operations. He pointed to court add-ons intended to fund indigent defense, of which some $23 million over five years went elsewhere.

“What they do is they use these kinds of things as a kitty to fund the state’s business,” Orr said. “And they do it on the backs of the people who are accessing the courts. What they really are is hidden taxes. But most important of all is how they meddle with the judicial system and put barriers between the people and the courthouse.”

Georgia calls it a judicial operations fee, though most of the money goes directly into the state’s general fund. Only $50 of the fees for lawsuits filed in state court, not superior court, goes to the counties. The counties also keep the increase in the sheriff’s service fee.

Dawn Childress, Bell-Forsyth Judicial Circuit Court administrator, said the increase in superior court fees may help overall, but the counties individually won’t benefit.

“Maybe it’ll help balance the state budget and we’ll see it in the long run, but we’re not getting anything right now,” she said.

Forsyth County’s caseload meets the requirements for a third superior court judge, however, the state doesn’t have the money to pay for one. As a result, state court judges as well as Chief Magistrate Walker Bramblett and Chief Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson have helped out.

Childress said she plans to work on a grant for funding to pay a senior court judge to help relieve Superior Court judges Jeffrey S. Bagley and David L. Dickinson, as well as those who have filled in.

“There’s not a lot of money there for that even if we are awarded the grant,” she said. “We’re trying to find something to help them out.”

FCN regional staff member Stephen Gurr contributed to this report.