This important question was addressed by a distinguished panel comprised of James W. Williams, Jr., Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Counsel of Alabama (PARCA); David A. Perry, Chief of Staff to Governor Robert Bentley; Dean John Carroll of Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law; and James R. Pratt, III of Hare Winn Newell & Newton, LLP and a past president of the Alabama State Bar, and moderated by R. Cooper Shattuck, general counsel of the University of Alabama System during the Annual Meeting’s morning plenary session. The information presented by the panelists was eye-opening.
Former president Pratt pointed out that 45% of all collections for court fees are spent on non-judicial related activities. Of the total court cost collections for fiscal year 2011 of $166 million, $91 million were spent on court-related expenses while $75 million went to non-judicial expenditures. According to Dean Carroll and Mr. Williams, recipients of fees collected as court fees and costs include entities or activities such as the American Village in Montevallo, the Lawrence County Historical Commission, Crimestoppers and D.A.R.E., among many others. While all of these may be worthy activities and some are even peripherally related to the judicial system, they do not directly support the administration of justice.
The panel compared the sources of revenue for the Education Trust Fund, which receives the majority of its funds from income and sales taxes and took in $5.7 billion in fiscal year 2012, and the General Fund, which took in $1.68 billion during the same period, three-quarters of which were derived from sources such as insurance company taxes, property taxes, oil and gas severance taxes, alcoholic beverage taxes, cigarette taxes, court costs and one-time receipts. The courts are funded from the General Fund and Mr. Perry pointed out that there is no reasonable likelihood of substantial growth in the General Fund due to the nature of its funding sources. In his opinion, the General Fund will not be able to adequately fund the courts in the future due to this lack of growth potential.
The panelists also pointed out the lack of uniformity from county to county by comparing filing fees among Madison, Jefferson and Marengo Counties. Several contended that the inadequate funding of the courts and the increase in court fees over the last few years has likely resulted in a lack of access to justice for many individuals and companies which have been unable to afford the fees. This contention is supported, Perry stated, by the fact that the most recent increase in court fees was expected to raise $25 million based on the caseload at the time of the increase, but that it brought in only two-thirds of the expected amount. This position was seconded by comments from several of the lawyers in the audience.
Former president Pratt closed the program by stating that the first step needed to reach a solution to the court funding problem would be to determine what it will take to adequately fund the courts while maintaining lean, streamlined systems for processing the courts’ work, and then work toward implementing a system of adequate funding, including a set of fees and costs that is simple, easy to understand, codified in one place, uniform across the state and dedicated exclusively to the administration of justice.
Those who are interested in seeing the current county-by-county study of intake and expenditures should see the information on the website of the Administrative Office of Courts. Any lawyers who are aware of instances in which the current level of court fees has prevented access to justice are asked to provide that information to the bar’s legislative counsel, Susie Edwards.