Higher fees sought to pay for aiding poor

Marriage license, other civil actions, traffic fines would cost more to pay for shelters, legal aid

  • Maryland Legal Aid's Christina Sawyer, right, conducts an intake interview with Melvin Williams of South Baltimore and a friend, Bernice Johnson, to determine how best to help him.
Maryland Legal Aid's Christina Sawyer, right, conducts… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
March 11, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Getting married in Baltimore, divorced in Prince George's County and suing someone across Maryland could soon cost considerably more as state lawmakers get creative in their search for money to support programs for the poor.

A half-dozen fee increases on court services are moving through the General Assembly at a time when the state is facing its own $2 billion shortfall and has little to give struggling social causes. The most sweeping change - a 50 percent jump in some civil case filing charges - unanimously passed the Senate this week and is being debated by a House of Delegates committee.

Other proposals include allowing local governments to impose a $75 surcharge on marriage applications in Baltimore and $70 on divorce petitions in Prince George's County.

Money raised from the increased fees would go to domestic violence shelters and to lawyers who provide free assistance in foreclosures filings, child custody battles and other civil matters. Legal aid revenue has been walloped by the bad economy even as those services are more in demand than ever, advocates say.

Traffic fines could go up, too, under a proposal to add a $7.50 charge that would help pay for state police helicopters and volunteer fire company equipment.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, head of Maryland's judicial branch, backs increases that would bolster legal aid funding, but urged lawmakers to look at the fee proposals "in a holistic sense."

"You have to be somewhat careful because access to courts can be affected if fees become too large," the Court of Appeals chief said. "We can't deny access in the name of access."

The legal aid funding measure has the broadest implications, affecting every person in Maryland who files a civil action, including landlords seeking to evict tenants. Advocates say that tacking on another $10 to District Court filings and $45 to Circuit Court cases would help overcome a major funding problem, generating as much as $10 million more each year.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee that is examining the proposal, said delegates would likely offer a compromise - perhaps at about 50 percent of the proposed filing fee increases. Delegates also are considering provisions to end the new fees after three years and install more oversight of the public money.

The fee increases are designed in part to help Maryland Legal Services Corp., which distributes money to about three dozen free legal clinics across the state. Much of the organization's revenue comes from interest on lawyers' trust accounts. But the recession and the Federal Reserve's historically low interest rates have devastated that funding stream, reducing the interest payments to legal services from $6.7 million in 2008 to an expected $2 million this year.

"We're having these incredible declines at a time when more people are losing their jobs, losing their homes and needing legal assistance," said Susan M. Erlichman, executive director of Maryland Legal Services, which has awarded more than $138 million in grants since it was created in 1982.

Domestic violence programs, which also hope to tap into new fees, also report more demand and less revenue.

"Our goal is not to turn anyone away," said Kerri Wojciechowski, a spokeswoman for House of Ruth, a well-known domestic violence program that would benefit from the Baltimore marriage license fee increase. "But we have definitely felt the effects of the economy."

The House of Ruth has a $6 million annual budget and helps domestic violence victims through its 84-bed shelter, a 24-hour help hot line, counseling and legal services. Wojciechowski said every source of money, from private donations to federal grants, has dipped, prompting the organization to seek to raise more revenue from city marriage licenses.

Marriage license varies
The cost of marrying varies among localities. The cheapest license is $15 in Baltimore County and Caroline County, and the most expensive is $65 in Frederick County. In Baltimore City, licenses cost $35, $25 of which already goes to the House of Ruth.

The legislation under consideration, approved this week by the Senate and being debated in a House of Delegates committee, would enable Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council to levy another $50 per license for the House of Ruth.

A spokesman for the mayor said actions to provide more funding are under consideration.

Similar legislation would allow Prince George's County to increase its surcharge on divorce petitions from $25 to $70. If that measure is approved by state and local authorities, $45 of each petition fee would be given to the Family Crisis Center of Prince George's County. Now, state legal aid receives $25 for every filing, support that would continue if the law is passed.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the various court fees appear to be directed at appropriate public services, "but we have to be careful that we don't overdo it."

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