The Price of Admission to the Courts: Tackling a Barrier to Access to Justice

The events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and their aftermath shined a national spotlight on an access to justice issue that too often was previously below the radar: the undue burden that court fees and fines can present for low-income and disadvantaged members of the community.

Illinois already was ahead of the game in recognizing these issues and seeking to address them after passing the Access to Justice Act in 2013.  Along with other significant innovations, that legislation created a Statutory Court Fee Task Force a multi-cameral, bipartisan task force to evaluate court fees and fines in Illinois and release a report and recommendations under the auspices of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. The Task Force was, it turns out, well-timed envisioned before the extent of the problem was well known but now poised to put Illinois at the forefront of tackling it.

The Task Force released its comprehensive report and recommendations in June, 2016. The report found that Illinois had a byzantine system of civil and criminal fees and fines spread throughout the statutory scheme, making it nearly impossible to track where fees were coming from. This had the effect of passing much of the court funding on to court patrons without taking into account their ability to pay. The report also found that the fees had grown at a rate outpacing inflation. This was mostly due to additional fees being added by law each year to fund various causes, some with no relation to the court system whatsoever. In addition, the Task Force found that fees varied wildly statewide, and that the impact of fees and fines disproportionally affected low- and moderate-income Illinoisans, similar to the findings in Ferguson.

So, what to do? The Task Force recommended, among other things:

  • legislation that would create one uniform, consistent schedule for court assessments, capping those assessments to avoid further inflation of costs
  • expansion of the civil fee waiver on a sliding scale based on income, and
  • creation of a comparable waiver for criminal fees.

With these recommendations in hand, the CBF and a coalition of partners worked with a dynamic team of legislators to introduce, shepherd through, and pass legislation to accomplish these goals. After a two-year effort, Public Act 100-0987 was signed into law on August 20, 2018.

As with any piece of legislation this massive, technical changes will be necessary, and in fact, a clean-up bill recently passed the General Assembly during veto session. The CBF will continue to work with advocates and legislators to ensure that these reforms are being thoughtfully implemented and working the way they were intended. We may not yet have a utopian system, in which court fees and fines are never a barrier to access to the justice system in Illinois, but this reform legislation goes a long way toward that goal.