In one of those "seemed like a good idea at the time" policy gaffes that sometimes happen even as a result of the best intentions, Georgia lawmakers have made civil justice financially inaccessible to many individuals and small businesses.
In the waning days of the most recent legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly was trying to find money for a state severely pounded by the recession.
One of the things legislators did was raise dozens of fines and fees, including the fee for copying civil court records.
The increase came to 567 percent.
Court transcripts can run to hundreds, even thousands of pages. Even for most simple appeals, documentation under this fee schedule will now cost more than $10,000, more than many Georgians and Georgia businesses can afford even for the most legitimate and responsible civil cases. For long-standing cases with multiple appeals, court costs will be in six figures ... just for the paperwork.
The rationale for the hike was simple - too simple, as it turns out. The Association County Commissioners of Georgia, trying to help the state bring its finances in line, researched all kinds of state fees and adjusted them according to the Consumer Price Index. When researchers for the ACCG noticed that Georgia's $1.50 per page court copying fee had not been raised since 1971, it was inflation-adjusted. ...
Even some of the lawmakers who backed the change, including Rep. Richard Smith of Columbus, are reconsidering.
"We don't want to infringe on anybody's right to get their cases heard in court," Smith said last week. "If there are mistakes, we'll fix them."
One obvious approach is more reliance on electronic records - PDFs and the like - and less on paper documents. Even if a hard copy or two needs to be stored as part of the public record, the necessity for redundant paper transcripts in the digital age is hard to fathom.
Access to the courts is a fundamental right. Pricing it out of ordinary citizens' range is the judicial equivalent of a poll tax.