Attorney registration fees set to increase nearly 25 percent will cover shortfalls in the judiciary programs they fund and give a temporary emergency boost to the state’s pro bono districts.
Effective Aug. 1, the registration fee for active attorneys will increase from $145 to $180, and fees for lawyers whose status is inactive will rise from $72.50 to $90. The fees were increased by a June 30 order from the Indiana Supreme Court. The annual registration period opens Aug. 1, and fees are due by Oct. 1.
Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson said the fee increase, the third in five years, is calculated to meet needs in coming years as “opposed to punting it down the road” so that additional increases won’t be necessary.
Court officials stressed that even with the increase, Indiana’s registration fees will remain among the lowest in the nation.
Lawyer registration fees pay for operations of the Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, the Commission on Continuing Legal Education and the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. Now, a portion of the increased fee also will provide revenue for the pro bono districts funded through the Indiana State Bar Foundation.
Chuck Dunlap, executive director of the foundation, said the Supreme Court hasn’t yet decided on the exact distribution, but the foundation asked for $14 to $16 of each $35 increase in the active attorney registration fee. He said the program might have ceased to exist without an infusion of revenue.
The Indiana Pro Bono Commission funds its programs largely from interest on lawyer trust account revenue, but the collapse in interest rates in recent years led to a funding drought. “It’s been devastating not just in Indiana, but nationally,” Dunlap said.
“The program is really in a crisis,” Dickson said. Money from the fee increase can provide a temporary fix for a couple of years, until interest rates rebound or another source of funding is identified for the program that assists civil litigants from a dozen regional offices around the state.
“We’re seeing the courts inundated more and more with pro se litigants. It’s bad for the litigants and it’s bad for the courts,” Dickson said. “This is an important program to us.”
Dunlap said the districts split about $750,000 last year, substantially less than half the money they received in the peak year of 2009. Since then, the foundation has been funding programs largely from more than $2 million in reserves accrued in better economic times.
“The reserve is just about to be exhausted,” he said.
The money the foundation receives from registration fees should raise $300,000 to $350,000 annually for pro bono districts, Dunlap said. Coupled with a $1 filing fee increase passed by the General Assembly in 2012, the money will keep funding close to the current level.
“We’re trying to keep it alive, essentially,” Dunlap said.
The Disciplinary Commission absorbs more money than any other program funded predominantly by registration fees.
According to financial information provided by the Supreme Court, the commission spent $2,332,918 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. That was over $121,000 more than it took in, but the commission also reported a closing balance of just under $1.5 million.
The commission’s expenses rose 11.6 percent in the 2012-2013 fiscal year compared to the prior year, according to budget information.
Registration fees also fund the CLE Commission, which had expenses of $749,646 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, and a budget year surplus of just over $29,000. The CLE Commission spent 10 percent more than in the prior fiscal year and closed the 2012-2013 fiscal year with just over $600,000 in the bank.
JLAP operated in the 2012-2013 fiscal year with a budget year surplus of more than $108,000, spending $497,716. The program concluded with a closing balance of more than $420,000 after spending 12 percent more than in the prior fiscal year.
Without a fee increase, each of those programs had been projected to operate at a deficit in coming years, according to the data, with the prospect of a combined budgetary shortfall of about $500,000 next fiscal year.
Dickson said program costs aren’t the only factor – revenue also was projected to decline because the number of active attorneys is decreasing. The advent of online registration has also reduced the number of lawyers paying late fees, which also are set to increase.
Delinquent fees will increase by $35 for those who register after the Oct. 1 deadline. The penalty will rise from $95 to $130 for those who pay by Oct. 15; from $145 to $180 for those who register from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31; and from $295 to $330 for those who register after Dec. 31.
“We hope this change presents only a minor challenge for lawyers,” Dickson said of the fee increases.
What other states do
Dunlap said other states that have relied on IOLTA to fund pro bono work have turned to registration fees to bridge the gap. Illinois in 2012, for instance, raised attorney registration fees from $289 to $342, with the entire increase replenishing that lost revenue.
But most states – 32 of 50 – also require a portion of the registration fee to be shared with their state bars, according to a survey of attorney licensing fees compiled by the Office of Attorney Ethics of New Jersey.
Among other findings in that survey:
• Half of states earmark a particular sum for attorney discipline, ranging from $25 to $235. Among states that apportion part of the fee for discipline, the average is about $123.
• More than half – 34 states – tag part of the attorney registration fee for client protection. The share ranges from $3 to $75.
The Supreme Court relied on the July 2013 New Jersey survey that showed Indiana’s fees ranked 50th compared to the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Maryland’s fee of $130 was lowest; Oregon’s fee of $3,722 – which includes a mandatory malpractice insurance fee – was highest.
Indiana State Bar Association President Jim Dimos said increases are never popular, but the registration dues remain low compared to states that don’t include mandatory bar fees.
“From our experience at the state bar, the court seems to administer things relatively modestly,” Dimos said. “While no one’s happy about paying more fees, we’re confident the court thought long and hard about this and believes they need these resources to continue to provide services to lawyers in the state of Indiana.”
In 2011, registration fees went up $15 after increasing by a like amount the prior year. The 2011 increase coincided with introduction of the online registration portal, http://appealsclerk.IN.gov.•