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Judiciary Committee Advances Bill by Senator Josh Becker to Lift Barriers to
Civil Justice for Low-Income Californians



Article Source:  CAState Senator Josh Becker


Judiciary Committee Advances Bill by Senator Josh Becker to Lift Barriers to Civil Justice for Low-Income Californians
 
SACRAMENTO – Inspired by Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and backed by more than a dozen legal aid and advocacy groups, legislation by Senator Josh Becker to improve access to civil justice was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
 
Senate Bill 355 would update the eligibility criteria for low-income Californians seeking a waiver of filing fees and other costs associated with litigation. The current criteria for automatically qualifying for a waiver is tied to the federal poverty level, which does not accurately reflect the true cost of living for California residents.
 
As a result, Californians in severe financial need can be shut out of the civil court process. Meanwhile, other low-income Californians, who want to exercise their right to civil justice, must argue in court for their fee waiver eligibility. That move costs them time away from work or family obligations and can bring their households closer to financial collapse.
 
“SB 355 ensures that the people who should qualify for a fee waiver, can qualify from the onset, instead of having to pay initial filing fees or court costs they can ill-afford in order to participate in our civil justice process,” said Senator Becker, D-Menlo Park. “Our justice system is supposed to be accessible to everyone, not just the people who can afford to defend themselves from a claim or sue for their rights. I thank Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto for calling this issue to my attention and sharing their bill idea.”
 
SB 355 proposes adding the California Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, and unemployment compensation to the list of public benefits that automatically qualify a recipient for a waiver of court fees and costs associated with litigation. The bill also would require use of a different federal income threshold to provide a more realistic indicator of the waiver applicant’s financial need in California’s economic landscape.
 
Today, 1 in 3 Californians are considered low income, a majority of tenant households are “rent-burdened,” paying 30% of more of their income in rent, and a quarter of tenant households are “severely rent-burdened,” paying 50% or more of income on rent. As of January, state unemployment stood at 9%. Though considerably lower than the pandemic-driven high of 16% in April 2020, the current figure contrasts sharply with the modern-day low of 3.9% unemployment before COVID struck.
 
Against that backdrop, low-income Californians facing court filing fees as high as $1,000 find it daunting to protect themselves in legal actions.
 
Writing in support of SB 355, some legal advocates shared the stories of Bay Area people who might have avoided the anxiety, fear, frustration and loss of precious time in legal cases if the criteria proposed by SB 355 had been in place.
 
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto told of a customer service employee, who supports her husband and son, who both live with disabilities. She was sued for a debt incurred by another child who is an adult. She qualified for legal aid, but she did not qualify for a waiver from filing fees related to the case. To apply for a waiver, she had to attest to her household’s need by providing documentation, calculating all monthly expenses and factoring in her spouse’s disability pay. Ultimately, she was able to show her monthly expenses exceeded her monthly income. But “the time and detail required…was overwhelming and stressful” for the woman, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto wrote.
 
The California Low-Income Consumer Coalition’s letter supporting SB 355 detailed the plight of an elderly retiree living in rent-stabilized housing in San Francisco on a $2,000 monthly pension. The man became a victim of identity theft and was sued by a debt collection agency. He went to court to block the debt from being collected, but before filing his motion to halt the collection process, he was required to pay a $225 filing fee. He did not automatically qualify for a fee waiver because of his pension and housing situation. Without physical checks or credit cards, he tried to pay the court filing fee with a money order. It was rejected. With help from a legal aid provider, the man eventually obtained a waiver. He could have qualified for a waiver from the start, if the criteria reflected the average area income, the Low-Income Consumer Coalition wrote.
 
“Living on a modest fixed income, $225 is a large sum of unexpected expense. However, forgoing a court filing and waiving one’s due process rights, as is common in most cases for people being sued, creates dire consequences with potentially lifelong ramifications,” the coalition said in its letter.
 
The cost of court fees, as well as fines, disproportionately fall on those least able to afford it, according to two recent studies. The burden “falls largely on the poor, much like a regressive tax,” said the Brennan Center for Justice in a 2019 report. But because those who shoulder most of the costs can’t afford them, the sums go unpaid. Instead of being a revenue producer for states and counties, the fees and fines cost the system money – in lost revenue and in the expense for adjudicating the process in the first place. Similar findings were made in a 2018 study by the ACLU.
 
While the Brennan Center and the ACLU reports focus on fees and fines in the criminal justice system, Senator Becker said the underlying premise of injustice and the burden of costs apply to filing fees in the civil justice system. However, extending the waivers that exist in California’s civil justice system can address the problem by implementing more realistic qualification criteria for the state’s fee waiver process, he said.
 
“With SB 355, we can support Californians in need, provide better access to our state’s civil justice system, and save valuable judicial resources currently spent adjudicating these requests,” Senator Becker said.
 
SB 355 now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a fiscal review.
 
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Leslie Guevarra
Communications Director
Office of State Senator Josh Becker
leslie.guevarra@sen.ca.gov

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