A proposal to increase the fees charged filers of small-claims lawsuits could help county clerks around the state fill budgetary holes resulting from a fairly recent change to the claims limit on civil cases.
Waukesha County Clerk Kathleen Madden said that the cost of handling small-claims cases isn’t covered by the current $22 fee.
Madden said her office recently conducted a study and found that it costs $43 on average in her county to process an uncontested case that results in a default judgment. The cost rises to $370 in contested and appealed cases that lead to a single hearing. Walworth County conducted a similar study, she said, and came up with numbers that were almost identical.
The resulting budgetary pressures have been exacerbated by a change in the statutory cap used to determine what constitutes a small claim. In 2011, that cap was increased from $5,001 to $10,000.
As a result, Madden said, her county lost $58,000 in filing fees, and 75 other counties also have lost money.
“We just can’t afford to lose any revenue source,” she said.
Madden was one of several officials who testified Wednesday at a Senate committee’s public hearing on Senate Bill 114, which would increase the fees charged to filers of small-claims civil cases. A state Assembly committee gave a favorable recommendation to a similar proposal in May.
The current cost of filing a small-claims case in circuit court is $22. Of that fee, $11.80 goes to the state’s general fund, and the rest to the county where the case was filed. Small-claims cases generally consist of eviction or other civil actions in which the amount of money in dispute is no greater than $10,000.
The current bill proposes increasing the filing fee to $50. Of that, $20 would go to the state’s general fund, and $30 to the county where the action was filed. The part set aside for the general fund, said State Rep. Allen, R- Waukesha, would be set aside primarily for the state’s court system and Consolidated Court Automation Program, also known as CCAP.
According to fiscal estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the increased fees would net counties $2.9 million and CCAP $1.2 million in general-fund money.
However, the bill met some resistance from committee members who said it would make it harder for the poor and indigent to take advantage of the state’s court system. Madden, in response, noted that anyone can fill out a form seeking a waiver of the fees.
Allen, one of the bill’s authors, said the fee has not been increased once in the last 20 years. Recent legislative sessions have seen lawmakers come close to passing fee increases but ultimately fall short of the goal.Follow @erikastrebel