Steven F. Pflaum
Steven F. Pflaum

SPRINGFIELD — A “byzantine” web of court fees across Illinois is undermining fairness in the legal system, according to a new report from a group of lawyers, lawmakers and judges.

The 15-member Statutory Court Fee Task Force, created by law to study fees over the past year or so, found that fees and fines have outpaced inflation, are applied inconsistently between jurisdictions and disproportionately harm low-income citizens.

“Skyrocketing filing fees in civil cases and a host of fees, costs and fines in criminal and traffic proceedings are pricing our most vulnerable citizens out of full participation in the court system and imposing excessive financial burdens on all who do participate,” says the 89-page report, which was sent to legislators and members of the Illinois Supreme Court earlier this month.

The group, which was appointed by legislators, the governor and the high court, is now calling for the justices and lawmakers to green-light assessment waivers or reductions for criminal defendants who are at or near the poverty line, change how some traffic offense fines are calculated and create more consistency in assessments throughout the state, among other things.

A spokeswoman for the court said the justices are still reviewing the report.

“It’s death by a million cuts,” said Steven F. Pflaum, a partner at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP who chaired the fee task force. “The individual fees might be a couple of bucks. It’s not the end of the world perhaps, but when you put them all together, it’s quite substantial.”

Litigants in civil cases may already know about base filing fees, appearance fees and even extra fees for requesting juries, all of which may vary by county and have increased over the years.

What they may not know about are the types of local and state add-on fees that are often bundled together and may go toward things like children’s waiting rooms or local law libraries — costs that “have no relationship whatsoever with the types of cases in which they’re imposed,” Pflaum said.

A dissolution of marriage case in Will County with a base filing fee of $190 for the petitioner, for example, ended up costing $301, according to the report. A DUI conviction in McHenry County resulted in $1,625 in assessments — some of which went to spinal cord research, roadside memorial and drug court funds — on top of the $150 fine imposed for the crime.

And those add-ons can vary widely, even among counties in the same region. The report highlights how Macoupin County, just south of Springfield, assessed state and local fees of $197 for a DUI conviction in 2015. Meanwhile, McLean County, home to Bloomington and about an hour and a half northeast of Macoupin, added a total of 15 state and local fees that push the defendant’s entire fine to $1,560.

Under current law, civil fees are automatically waived for individuals living under 125 percent of the federal poverty benchmark or who otherwise qualify for public funds tied to poverty-level income. The task force proposed expanding that waiver to accommodate a partial reduction in fees for those earning between 125 and 200 percent of the poverty level.

The group also proposed a uniform law for criminal and traffic case assessments with counties and circuit clerks playing no role in setting the amounts, assessment waivers for criminal defendants at or near the poverty line, and a checklist for legislators to consult before proposing new fees.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and member of the panel, could not be reached for comment. But she said in a statement this morning that lawmakers can be tempted to add fees every now and then “and not think about the bigger picture.”

“I would ask the [l]egislature and the [c]ourt to look as carefully at the problems we uncovered and our proposed solutions and work with us to root out the inequities in how justice is dispensed around the state,” she said.

Pflaum echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t think we’re pointing fingers,” he said. “But we’ve identified a serious problem and we’ve given what we believe are feasible solutions.”