New Filing Fees in Multnomah County- Major Access to Justice Issue

From the Oregonian:

Filing a suit? Get ready to pay more — possibly much more
By Aimee Green, The Oregonian
October 01, 2009, 5:48PM
The price of suing someone in Oregon jumped today, from an old rate of $189 or less to what can amount to $500, $5,000 or in rare cases thousands more.

The new, higher fees are brewing concerns that low- and middle-income Oregonians won’t be able to come up with the money to sue over car accidents, botched surgeries, wrongful death, discrimination, unpaid wages and a host of other troubles because the cost is just too great.

Kateri Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Oregon State Bar, said she’s hearing from attorneys who are worried about keeping “the doors of the justice system open to everyone.”

The steepest fee increases are to cases that seek hundreds of thousands of dollars with long lists of plaintiffs or defendants, such as those filed by condo owners who accuse builders and subcontractors of shoddy construction. A condo construction suit filed last week in Multnomah County Circuit Court listed more than 30 plaintiffs and defendants. It cost $189 to file, but starting Thursday, an identical suit would cost more than $13,000.

In turn, each one of the defendants listed would have to pay several hundred dollars more to respond to the lawsuit.

Lawsuits that list only one plaintiff and one defendant and seek less than $10,000 — such as a person slips and falls at a store or a fender bender between two drivers — saw only a tiny bump to the filing fee, from $128 before today to $137. What’s more, the poorest plaintiffs, such as those who qualify for food stamps, are eligible to have their filing fees waived.

The Oregon Legislature passed the new fees last session to help avoid deeper cuts to the justice system. The court system also has started charging new fees or increased old ones for various courthouse services, but none as much as the costs for filing a lawsuit.

The new fees are expected to generate $40 million over the rest of the 2009-2011 biennium. And according to Phil Lemman, judicial department spokesman, they will make it possible to keep courthouses open five days a week and keep processing small claims, traffic tickets and landlord-tenant disputes at the current rate. The fees also will help pay for public defenders across the state, averting would could have resulted in a temporary freeze to criminal cases.

The new fees could be temporary. They are scheduled to sunset in June 2011, when lawmakers will reassess the budget situation and have the option of renewing the fees or letting them fall back to theold rates.

Lemman said the new fees still don’t cover the true costs of seeing a lawsuit to trial, where it may consume days of judge and staff time. But he said the state hasn’t intended to cover those costs, instead believing that the state’s courts are an essential service that should be funded with taxpayer dollars. The grim budget situation, however, has forced the state to boost fees, Lemman said.

Courthouse employees in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties said few were surprised by the higher prices for filing lawsuits Thursday, thanks to an exerted effort to get the word out in recent days.

Clackamas County reported what may have been a record Wednesday — with attorneys filing 25 suits listing multiple parties in the last 90 minutes of the day, possibly saving many thousands of dollars each as they squeaked in before the deadline.

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