By Phillip Ensler, Appleseed Policy Counsel

In 2014, a little boy drowned in an apartment swimming pool with no fence.  His mother sued the owners but because of backlogs and barriers in the courts, she was denied.

Alabama Appleseed has been fighting for a solution to this injustice, and this week the Alabama Legislature responded by passing SB30, which provides greater access to justice for low-income Alabamians. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk, where she is expected to sign it into law.

SB30 ensures that backlogs in the court system to approve applications for filing fee waivers  do not prevent low-income Alabamians from being heard in court.

Filing fees for civil lawsuits can run into the hundreds of dollars, a prohibitive cost for low-income Alabamians struggling to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and other necessities. Individuals who cannot afford these fees can apply to have them waived, but applications can sit for months without any action.

This is problematic. Many civil causes are constrained by statutes of limitations, often running a year or two, which mean that individuals who wish to file lawsuits must do so by a certain deadline. But backlogs in the fee-waiver system mean judges may not decide on waiver applications until after the relevant statute of limitations has ended. As a result, low-income individuals have been denied the ability to have their case heard merely because the court failed to review their waiver application before the deadline.

This bill fixes a real-world problem. In 2014, Coretta Arrington tragically lost her 6 year old son when he drowned in the swimming pool of their Montgomery apartment complex. Ms. Arrington sued the property owners to hold them accountable for failing to put fencing around the pool area, which would have prevented her son’s death. When she filed the case, she also submitted a hardship waiver because did not have the money to pay the court filing fee. Before the court considered her case, the judge had to decide whether Ms. Arrington was eligible for the hardship waiver. Unfortunately, the decision on her hardship waiver was made too late, and the statute of limitations prohibited her case from moving forward. In the end, Ms. Arrington was denied the opportunity to seek justice for her son’s death.

SB30 ensures that people  like Ms. Arrington will not be denied access to the courts simply because they cannot afford a court filing fee and the court takes time to consider their waiver application. Under the new legislation, one’s lawsuit would be considered filed with the court on the same day as their fee-waiver application. This prevents the statute of limitations from expiring while the judge considers the application. This legislation ensures that all Alabamians have better access to the courts, regardless of their wealth.

The passage of this bill is commendable and important. But there is still much work to be done to ensure that all Alabamians have access to quality civil legal representation.

In 2017, more than 422,000 low income households in Alabama experienced over 733,000 legal issues, including veterans seeking their benefits, workers at risk of having wages illegally garnished, and Alabamians facing domestic abuse. Yet due to Alabama’s lack of adequate funding and resources for these necessary legal services, approximately 84% of the civil legal needs of eligible Alabamians went unmet.

This dire lack of access to representation can be attributed to Alabama being only one of three states that fails to provide funding for civil legal services.

Despite the vital needs faced by low income Alabamians, civil legal aid providers in Alabama rely primarily on federal funds to operate, leaving Alabama with an approximately $36.6 million annual funding gap.

Civil legal aid is not only essential to Alabamians in need, it also provides substantial benefits to Alabama’s communities. According to a 2018 study from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, of every $1 invested in Alabama civil legal aid services, the citizens of the state receive almost $12 in economic benefits. That is a Social Return on Investment of 1,195%, which means tens of millions of dollars in value added to Alabama communities.

As we applaud the passage of SB30 this week, we must keep fighting to ensure that the depth of one’s pocketbook does not determine whether or not he or she can receive legal representation and access to justice.

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