For Low-Income Defendants, Supreme Court Gives Break On Court Fees

Feb 14, 2019

Low-income earners can soon apply to waive their court costs in Illinois.

New rules let people apply for a full or partial waiver. They can also ask to pay in installments or defer payment.

The Illinois Supreme Court announced the changes Wednesday as the result of a 2018 law.

Steve Pflaum chaired the Statutory Court Fee Task Force, the bipartisan group of lawyers, judges and legislators that recommended the waiver system.

“On the criminal side, what we were seeing was that the fees and costs were disproportionate to the nature of the offense, in many instances,” Pflaum said. “Bearing in mind that these are not fines, this is not supposed to be a vehicle for punishing someone, that was a concern.”

Pflaum said the task force also found excessive variation in how much fees cost in different counties for the same types of cases. 

According to Pflaum, skyrocketing court fees can lead people down a debt spiral. He said the new waiver system, which goes into effect July 1, is an important step towards making the courts accessible to all Illinoisans—but not a cure all.

“Access to justice is a fundamental governmental service and obligation,” Pflaum said. “When our courts become too expensive for everyday citizens to use them, it’s a problem.”

Waiver amounts depend on how applicants measure against the federal poverty level. Those making up to twice the poverty level may qualify for a full waiver. Reductions are pro-rated for higher income level.

The waivers apply not just to criminal cases, but fees related to civil and traffic cases as well.