Reports - Events
of San Bruno CA
Judiciary Committee Advances Bill by Senator Josh Becker to Lift Barriers to
Civil Justice for Low-Income Californians
Article Source: CAState Senator Josh BeckerJudiciary Committee Advances Bill by Senator Josh Becker to Lift Barriers to Civil Justice for Low-Income Californians
– 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.
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
“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.
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.
that backdrop, low-income Californians facing court filing fees as high
as $1,000 find it daunting to protect themselves in legal actions.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Office of State Senator Josh Becker