by Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel
This past legislative session, Alabama Appleseed worked to improve on access to justice for low-income individuals in our state by advocating for two important pieces of legislation.
While some legislators in both the House and Senate supported these bills, the full state legislature was not given the opportunity to vote on these necessary changes.
We advocated for SB 36, which would have ensured that backlogs in the fee-waiver system couldn’t prevent low-income Alabamians from being heard in civil court.
Filing fees for civil lawsuits can run into the hundreds of dollars, a prohibitive cost for low-income Alabamians struggling to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and other necessities. Individuals who cannot afford these fees have a right to apply to have them waived, but applications can sit for months without any action.
This is problematic. Many civil causes are constrained by statutes of limitations, often running a year or two, which mean that individuals who wish to file lawsuits must do so by a certain deadline. But backlogs in the fee-waiver system mean judges may not decide on waiver applications until after the relevant statute of limitations has ended. As a result, low-income individuals have been denied the ability to have their case heard merely because the court failed to review their waiver application before the deadline.
This bill would have fixed a real-world problem. Coretta Arrington’s six-year-old son drowned after he gained unsupervised access to the swimming pool in their apartment complex. Ms. Arrington alleged that the property owner was at fault for her son’s death because they failed to have lifeguards and other safety measures in the pool area. But, she was unable to hold the property owner accountable because she could not afford the filing fees required to bring the case. She sought a fee waiver, but by the time the court got around to approving her application, the statute of limitations period in which she would have legally needed to bring the case had expired. As a result, she was denied the opportunity to seek justice in the courts for the death of her child.
SB36 would have ensured that individuals like Ms. Arrington would not be denied access to the courts simply because they cannot afford a court filing fee. Under the proposed law, one’s lawsuit would be considered filed with the court on the same day as their fee-waiver application. This would prevent the statute of limitations from expiring while the judge considers the application. This fix would better ensure that all Alabamians have access to the courts, regardless of their wealth.
We also advocated for HB 379, which would have created a waiver process for the fee caps on how much appointed lawyers can be paid by the state for their representation of indigent criminal defendants.
Under current law, the fee caps are imposed regardless of the complexity of the case or how much time and effort the attorney puts into their client’s defense.
Fair justice requires that all people—regardless of how much money they have—are effectively represented in court. The existing fee caps discourage some of the most competent and effective lawyers in the state from taking on appointed work, and create a disincentive for appointed attorneys to devote the necessary time and resources to their client’s case.
We advocated for HB 379 because it would have created a process in which appointed attorneys could be paid up to double the cap in situations that require the devotion of extra time and resources into representing their client. Creating this type of waiver system will enable attorneys to provide their clients with the vigorous defense they deserve without forcing those attorneys to work for free, and could motivate attorneys who have avoided appointed work for financial reasons to represent individuals who cannot afford counsel. As a result, indigent defendants–who face the prospect of having the government take away their liberty–would enter the courtroom on a more even playing field.
In the coming months, Alabama Appleseed will publish reports that will educate the public and legislators about the importance of ensuring that all Alabamians, regardless of income, enjoy equal access to justice.
We will publish a report on the importance of civil legal aid services for individuals who cannot afford an attorney, provide attorneys with manuals to assist them in taking on such cases, and engage in court-watching and documentation research to evaluate the quality of representation afforded to indigent defendants. And when next session rolls around, we will urge lawmakers to ensure access to justice for all, making our state a fairer, safer, and more equitable place.