City Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway is challenging the $60 fee that the Orphans' Court charges for hearings to appoint legal guardians and to settle estates.
Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state that charges an Orphans' Court hearing fee, and Conaway has written Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and asked him to investigate the matter.
"What bothers me is that it is yet another fee imposed on people of Baltimore City," Conaway says.
Conaway, who serves as clerk to the Orphans' Court, says many Baltimoreans cannot afford to pay the fee.
RTC Murphy says he has received Conaway's letter and asked Susan Whiteford, a lawyer in the state attorney general's office, to examine its assertions. Conaway contends that the fee is "morally wrong" and the court lacks the authority to impose it.
Baltimore's Orphans' Court judges instituted the hearing fee in 1985 to pay for court reporters, who record hearings. Previously, the court operated without reporters, making it virtually impossible to appeal cases because there were no transcripts, says Judge Michael W. Lee.
"When I was a young attorney practicing before this court, I was surprised that lawyers who thought they may have to appeal a case would hire their own court reporters," Lee says.
The Court of Appeals has ordered other jurisdictions in Maryland to provide court reporters by Dec. 1, although, in most cases, their cost will be absorbed by county governments, Lee says.
Lee says it is necessary to charge a fee for the court-provided recorders in Baltimore because the city government is strapped for cash. The funding problems, which persist across the city-funded portions of the court system, leave the court to operate with just three judges, one secretary and a single law clerk to handle roughly 4,500 cases a year.
"No other large city in the country operates its Orphans' Courthis way," Lee says.
Lee says the judges had no other way to finance the court reporters other than to levy a hearing fee. Lee estimates that the fee is applied to about 500 cases a year. In other cases, the disputes are settled or adjudicated by the judges without a hearing, Lee says.