Tarrant County district clerk ordered to stop going after indigents' fees

Posted Monday, Apr. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- A visiting state district judge ordered Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder on Monday to stop trying to collect court fees from low-income litigants who were declared indigent under state law.

Two legal aid agencies filed lawsuits against Wilder last month accusing him of engaging in conduct to "intimidate" their clients into paying court fees even though they properly filed indigency affidavits.

Judge David Cleveland of Palo Pinto County issued a temporary injunction to stop Wilder from collecting the fees from indigent litigants in family law cases. The case will go to trial May 2 in 17th State District Court.

State District Judge Melody Wilkinson, who originally was to preside, recused herself from the case.

"I think it shows eminent harm," Cleveland said when he isssued the temporary injunction.

He pointed out that there is a statewide rule governing procedures for indigent litigants.

Linda Gregory, an attorney representing four of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said the judge's order shows that he understood the importance of the rule.

"We've always believed the law has been very clear. It's not a big question as to how things should be done. Anyone who has filed a case under a pauper's affidavit which is not contested shouldn't have to pay the court costs," she said.

Chris Ponder, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney representing Wilder, said the judge's ruling is "disappointing," but the first step in a long process.

"It's unfortunate that the district clerk is in a tough spot with one judge telling him one thing and another judge telling him another" referring to language found in the final divorce decrees, he said.

Too late to appeal

The two lawsuits were filed by Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Texas Advocacy Project. Their clients include disabled people, domestic violence victims and parents whose children were sexually assaulted by relatives, according to court documents.

Attorneys for the agencies' clients did not receive letters until almost a year after their cases were settled and they were sent after the deadline had passed for them to appeal to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Wilder has said that he was simply following the orders of state district judges when he sought to collect the money and that he is not blocking anyone's access to the courts.

People can represent themselves in divorce proceedings and submit an indigence application at the beginning of the case, allowing court costs to be waived unless someone has a "windfall" or assets are discovered.

Court officials can oppose the designation at the time of the filing. If the application is granted, the county absorbs the costs. In Tarrant County, the filing fee for a divorce with no children is $271.

Internet forms

During the hearing, attorneys representing the plaintiffs argued that when people use forms found on the Internet they contain "boilerplate" language such as the husband shall pay his court costs and the wife shall pay for her divorce costs. Yet, the clients had affidavits showing proof of indigency in their court files.

Shawnta Coleman, who testified Monday afternoon, said she represented herself in her divorce and used forms found on the Internet.

She described filling in the blanks, and said she remembered seeing the language about the husband and wife paying the respective court costs.

When Coleman received a letter stating that she owed $308, a year after she filed for divorce, she was surprised.

Coleman said the letter said that a constable or sheriff's deputy could come to her home and collect items to pay the debt if she didn't make a payment in 10 days.

"I don't think it's right if you own a house or a car, as that would be worth more than the $308," she said.

In his testimony, Wilder said that 59,000 cases are filed annually in his office and that he is following a process patterned after other large counties in Texas and on advice from the district attorney's office.

Elizabeth Campbell,

817-390-7696

Twitter: @fwstliz

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