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Court fees skyrocket in Saskatchewan

|Written By Anthony Davis
Court fees skyrocket in Saskatchewan
Saskatchewan justice minister and attorney general Don Morgan.

If only mechanics charged their repair rates the same way.

In Saskatchewan, until recently, many court fees for such services as filing for a divorce, filing for an appeal, making a claim or even just making photocopies of documents hadn’t gone up since 1999.

It wasn’t to last for Saskatchewanites embroiled in or using their justice system. First, at the end of June 2018, provincial and small claims court fees were increased. Then, seven months later, after a review of court fees by the province’s justice department, a slew of fees at the Court of Queen’s Bench and Court of Appeal were hiked up — in some cases doubling. “The review determined that the current fees have not kept up with the actual costs of providing these services,” Justice Minister and Attorney General Don Morgan said in a news release at the end of last January.

Examples of the new fees at Court of Queen’s Bench includes doubling the cost of commencing an action to $200. Commencing a mediation action was $200 and now increases to $300. Photocopy fees jump to a dollar from 50 cents per page. Meanwhile, provincial court fees had already increased since last summer; issuing a summons for a small-claims case, for instance, went up by five times to $100 from the earlier rate of $20.

Fees paid to expert witnesses, interpreters and transcription services have also been increased to meet a “reasonable standard of compensation,” according to Saskatchewan’s justice department.

Those using legal aid are unaffected by the increases, Jerome Boyko, Legal Aid Saskatchewan’s director of finance and information technology, told Canadian Lawyer. The agency, which gets $25 million annually from the province, “is exempt from paying all court fees.”

And thanks to Saskatchewan’s Fee Waiver Act, which went into effect in 2016, clients of the Community Legal Assistance Services For Saskatoon Inner City can avoid shelling out for court service fees, says executive director Chantelle Johnson. CLASSIC offers walk-in advocacy clinics where clients can get free basic legal information and services from law students who are supervised by lawyers. It also runs free legal advice clinics where self-represented individuals can meet for a half hour with practising lawyers for guidance.

But others in the province — especially the growing number of middle-class Saskatchewan residents trying to avoid the high cost of lawyer fees by representing themselves in court — will likely be impacted, says Joel Janow, executive director of the Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan. A non-profit NGO, PLEA has been providing legal education to Saskatchewan residents interested in self-representation since 1980.

“Really, my only thought when I heard about these latest fees is that it’s going to cost more for people in Saskatchewan to [have] access to justice,” says Janow.

On PLEA’s website, plea.org, users can find information on various areas of law, including small claims, traffic cases, debt law, family law and criminal offences. They can even answer a series of questions on the website, and a program can use the answers to more quickly and accurately fill out complicated court forms.

 Though usage has levelled off for some kinds of law after decades of exponential increases over the decades, a more recently added family law section has particularly taken off. “For a long time, we’ve been seeing more and more people representing themselves,” says Janow. “And the family law site just continues to rise.”

Carly Romanow is executive director and one of three staff lawyers at Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan. In 2017, the organization, which runs a dozen free legal clinics around the province, provided legal information to 1,100 people. Ninety-eight people were provided free partial or full representation by some of Pro Bono Law’s 350 volunteer or staff lawyers.

Romanow has called the court fee hikes “disappointing,” though many of Pro Bono Law’s clients may also be eligible for fee waivers. However, the waivers, she adds, don’t cover all court fees. “I haven’t seen a client be able to successfully use a waiver certificate to waive all the photocopying fees,” she says. With a divorce application comprising 75 pages, getting copies at a $1 per page can quickly add up.

 Pro Bono Law doesn’t discuss publicly the means level required for clients to obtain a fee waiver. Lacking the resources to verify income claims, PBL also doesn’t require clients to provide proof of earnings.

Romanow says PBL’s mission is to fill in the gap between those eligible for legal aid and people — many of whom have jobs or income — who choose to represent themselves because they still can’t afford to hire a lawyer. The new fees, she says, are “just another barrier for self represented individuals to be able to fully prepare and understand the cases against them.”

Romanow says she’s curious about what the province will do with the extra revenue generated by the new fees. She has one suggestion: “A review of court forms would be very helpful. Even for a very sophisticated non-lawyer, court forms are confusing. ‘Judicial centre’  — what does that mean?”

Many self-represented individuals, she says, are initially rejected by their local court registrar’s office when applying for various kinds of court remedies or hearings because they have incorrectly filled out forms. Simplifying the language and requirements in such forms “would help unclog some of the issues” at Saskatchewan’s court registries, she says.


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