The Alabama State Bar requested that the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) review our current court cost structure within the State of Alabama with an emphasis on its relationship to court funding by the Alabama Legislature. PARCA’s court costs study found the current structure to be archaic, inefficient and without transparency. PARCA further found that the use of court costs as a source of court funding is inadequate.
Remarkably, the Alabama court system currently receives from the Legislature in its general fund appropriations the amount it collects and deposits (unearmarked) into the same general funds for our state. However, the court system actually collects almost twice that amount. The remaining amount collected is earmarked to be distributed by the clerks of the court in each county on a monthly basis. Except on a limited basis, this collection and distribution of monies for state agencies, District Attorneys, city and county governments and many others is without compensation to the clerks or the court system. The 2014 Baldwin County reports obtained by the Alabama State Bar illustrate this finding and also confirm the role of the court system in providing revenue to the local and state economies.
While statewide court costs to benefit the court system have only increased once in the past ten years, local court costs have risen at an alarming rate. In many instances, the local costs do not benefit the court system or its operations. If the local costs were implemented to assist the local court operations, much of that revenue is now being used to pay for employees cut by the state due to decreased appropriations. PARCA found that without these local court payments for court employees, the staff within our state court system would be decreased dramatically.
The amount of cases being filed in our court system has been declining for many years. PARCA conducted a limited survey to determine if the rising court costs had any relationship to the decreased filings. The results from that survey did find such a relationship, although it is not the sole contributing cause. PARCA provided a chart illustrating the decline of court filings and distributions due to that decline over a ten year period (2002-2011). The bar has supplemented that information with comparative data for the period of 2009 through 2014.
Court costs are charged in both civil and criminal cases. Costs are normally collected in civil cases at rate of nearly 100 percent. However, costs, fines and fees in criminal cases are difficult to collect. The courts have implemented collection dockets to attempt to collect these fees, fines and costs, but without any additional staff. The Bar Leadership alumni group, in conjunction with the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), studied the difficulty in collecting these criminal court costs in 2012. That group also assisted AOC in creating county by county charts on what costs were collected in each area and how those costs were distributed. The 2014 Baldwin County Court collections and distributions report obtained by the bar also illustrates this information.
PARCA has noted that the amount of collections in both the civil and criminal courts has dramatically decreased over this same time period of decreased filings. This data has been updated to include 2014 in comparison to the prior three fiscal years.
PARCA provides ideas and information on methods for improving our current system. The bar provides this information to its membership and the public in hope that this information will provide a foundation for discussion regarding these issues.
The full PARCA Court Cost Study can be found here.
Additional documents referenced: