Representing yourself in court is arguably cheaper than hiring a lawyer, but it isn’t free. If you need to litigate a case, court clerks across the U.S. have a bill waiting for you in the form of court fees.
Each state has a slew of fees for an even bigger slew of reasons. Depending on the state, fees are charged for a jury trial, filing a motion, answering a complaint, modifying a pleading, modifying a motion, adding defendants, and even blowing your nose.
Okay, the last one doesn’t belong, but the others are among the fees being charged by any number of courts. This is in addition to an initial filing fee, which is usually pretty steep. High court fees threaten access to justice for average people. Below is an analysis of court costs in the U.S.
The Cost of Filing Documents in U.S. Civil Courts
The basic fee to file an original claim in a state court averages about $215 nationwide. This average was difficult to calculate because the fees and inclusions vary greatly. Though we excluded small claims, evictions, and traffic cases, the figure is still a very rough estimate of limited and general jurisdiction courts in the U.S.
If you want to sue someone in district court in Iowa, you pay a fee of $185. In Kansas you pay $156. In Louisiana, the cost for an original filing of a suit is $400. If you want spousal support, you pay $300 to argue it. In Florida, depending on the court, you might pay $400 for filing an initial claim exceeding $15,000 in a general jurisdiction court. The cost doesn’t end there. As the value of the claim rises, so do the court costs in Florida. A single filing fee can go all the way up to $1900 with related costs. No, you don’t get any extras with that.
In Federal court, the numbers are even higher than the $215 state average. A simple filing of a case is a flat $500. In both state and federal courts, the filing fee typically does not include the costs of official copies of documents, issuing of a summons, and serving the summons and complaint.
A Tiny Bit of Good News
In South Dakota, you pay only $70 for filing fees and related costs. You even get a jury trial with that. That’s a deal! In other states, your status as a pro se litigant might help you on the fees. In Maryland, for instance, you get $20 off if you’re pro se. That brings the filing fee down to $165. Teton County Wyoming does a similar thing. The pro se filing fee is $85, while the regular filing fee is $110.
You might also be able to waive fees. “For most… lawsuits, you must pay a filing fee unless you can show the court that you are too poor to pay the fee. This is called filing “in forma pauperis.”‘ Southeast Louisiana Legal Services
Waiving a fee can be good, but be careful. Even when you’re able to waive some court fees, you do so at a price. When the court is paying your fees, you may lose the ability to decide what to file or how often to file it. Also, in an appellate situation where the court can decide whether or not it will hear your case, the fact that you didn’t come out of pocket for the fee might matter. This is unfortunate but true.
In some cases, fees might in fact be the only things that fund the court clerk’s office. Jefferson Parish Louisiana’s Clerk of Courts Office lets you know that up front. “The clerk of court’s office does not receive ad valorem taxes. Its operations are entirely funded by the collection of fees for services it provides.” A court that depends on fees to pay its costs might be reluctant to support any waiving of those fees.
Despite waiver shortcomings, overall the ability to waive fees goes in the good column.
Okay, end of the good news.
What’s the Harm in Charging High Fees?
Again, high fees are a threat to access to the courts for many self-represented litigants. Not only are pro se litigants in court without a lawyer and must work within a system designed by lawyers, they must also pay high fees for the right to do so. At times, it even seems as if the fees are designed to keep them out.
In 2015, CNBC reported that 62% of Americans couldn’t cover unexpected expenses that were as low as $500. CNN Money in 2018 reported that 40% can’t cover a $400 emergency. The CNN report goes on to state that “Those who don’t have the cash on hand say they’d have to cover it by borrowing or selling something.” Yet, court fees all too often exceed $400, making state and federal courts less accessible for a huge number of people. High fees may force potential litigants to borrow or sell something or stop them from pursing a claim or defending themselves.
One article even questions the constitutionality of court fees. When you look at states like Louisiana and Florida, you’ll understand the merits of this point. The median family income for Louisiana is $45,146, and for Florida it’s $50,860. Both are well below the national median family income of $59,039. Yet, court fees are twice as high as the national average at $435 for Louisiana and $400-$1900 for Florida. These costs are out of line with the state median incomes and seem designed to discourage citizens from utilizing the courts.
Compare these costs to court fees in other states. In Maryland, the fee for filing a large claim is $165. The median family income is $78,945. The fee in Wyoming is $85 while the median family income is $59,882. Iowans pay a filing fee of $185. The median family income is $56,247. In Kansas, the fee is $156, and the median family income is $54,935. These states do a better job than Florida and Louisiana in aligning court fees with state income levels and keeping costs down.
The degree to which high court fees stop people from pursuing legitimate claims and defenses in court is not known. What is known is that filing and other fees are relatively high. While most people can handle simple one-time fees for documents or copying costs, filing and related fees might negatively influence their decisions about going to court. That makes them a threat to access to justice. That’s the harm.