Chief Justice Jorge Labarga has made improving access to civil justice one of the priorities of his tenure as head of Florida’s judicial branch, creating the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.
On April 19, Labarga took part in the White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice, in Washington, D.C. He joined chief justices from Texas, Missouri, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Arizona in a panel discussion on “Fines and Fees at the Intersection of Criminal and Civil Legal Aid.”
Following remarks by Vice President Joe Biden that included the continuing challenges of domestic violence, here’s what our chief justice had to say, when asked the following question:
“In Florida, you, too, have a lot of fees. The Legislature has added more than 20 new categories of fees since 1996 and increased other fees. How do you ensure that courts offer appropriate alternatives to fines and fees for clients who can’t afford them, and how can legal aid help you and help your courts?”
Chief Justice Labarga responded: “First of all, as to the vice president’s statement about the Domestic Violence Act, I have been practicing long enough — 36 years — when all that needed to be said to a judge was, ‘It’s just a domestic dispute,’ and it was over. That was all that was needed to be said. Obviously, we have come a long way since then. But we are still hearing the question that he mentioned, the question being, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ And we are hearing that from people that we should not be hearing it from at this juncture. So we still have a ways to go with domestic violence.
“Having said that, as you mentioned, court related fines and fees have escalated over the years. For example, in Florida the filing fee for a divorce case is now about $400, with the exact amount depending upon the county in which one files. This, combined with other expenses and costs that are tacked onto it in a family court case, is beyond the reach of some people, not just low-income people; I mean, middle-class people.
“So what happens? Low- and moderate-income people have no choice but to postpone divorcing, divorcing their abusers, postpone pursuing support for their children, or postpone other action that should affect the well-being of their families.
“These court-related fines add up and add up quickly. Florida courts have generated as much as $1 billion in revenue. Most of it goes to noncourt programs. We just asked for a mere $25 million so that we can update our technology in Florida. That was denied. We got cut $2.7 million to the trial courts instead.
“You specifically mentioned the costs associated with the reinstatement of drivers’ licenses. Florida loves to suspend drivers’ licenses. That is the solution to everything. Spit on a sidewalk; your license is suspended.
“As in some states, drivers’ license sanctions are commonly used to punish individuals engaged in behavior unrelated to the operations of their vehicle. One of them being failure to pay child support, for example. If you don’t pay child support, your license is suspended. So now you can’t get to work. You work construction and you’ve got to drive 20 miles to get to your construction site. What happens? You drive anyway. You get caught three times, and now it is a five-year felony! So that is what we are doing with drivers’ licenses.
“Indeed, a majority of Florida drivers’ license suspensions — issued by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles — over 1.5 million in 2014 in Florida, are the result of just mere requests initiated by the clerk of the court. Most originate from failure to comply or failure to pay. If you fail to pay, you get more.
“Drivers’ license suspension and revocation penalties are intended to motivate individuals to do certain things that they are supposed to do. However, in many instances, the individual truly cannot afford to pay it. The penalties for driving without a license that is suspended or revoked increases per offense, causing individuals suffering financial hardship to become stuck in a revolving door. Drivers who are unable to pay their original fine or court fees may lose their ability to legally get to and from work, as I mentioned earlier.
“If they are caught driving with a license that is suspended or revoked, they will incur additional court costs and penalties. You do it three times, then you go to prison. In Florida, a person whose license is suspended for inability to pay penalties and court financial obligations has to pay a reinstatement fee in addition to the outstanding obligations.
“So, in many instances, the Florida courts are required to accept partial payments of court-related fees, service charges, costs or fines in accordance with the terms established by the payment plan. In those instances, the court can actually review the reasonableness of the payment plan. So we have some leeway there.
“In our state, a monthly payment amount is presumed to correspond to the person’s ability to pay, if the amount does not exceed 2 percent of the person’s annual net income divided by 12. That’s the formula.
“Additionally, a person who is ordered to pay certain criminal and civil penalties and is unable to comply due to financial hardship must be allowed by Florida courts to satisfy the order by participating in community service instead. So that is another option a court may have: Have the person work it off doing community service.
“The problem now is the clerks in the state of Florida are permitted to hire . . . collection agencies, which, of course, they add a surcharge to the fines that they collect, thereby increasing the financial burden.
“So it’s a revolving door.
“But as I mentioned earlier, we were denied $25 million [for court technology upgrades] out of the $1 billion we collect. By the way, the entire budget for the Florida judiciary — the third largest state in the country — our budget is seven-tenths of 1 percent. And yet . . . this year we got a $2.7 million cut.
“Other than perhaps work it off as community service, or payment plans or things like that, I see no other way, the way our statutes are structured. And that’s very unfortunate.”