OAKLAND -- Looking at civil court records in Alameda County just got a lot more expensive.
Alameda County Superior Court is now charging $1 for each page of a legal document downloaded online, jumping on a trend adopted by other cash-strapped courthouses around the state.
The per-page viewing cost drops to 50 cents after the fifth page, and there is a $40 maximum charge for any single document. But since most court cases accumulate reams of paperwork, viewing an entire case file can easily reach three-figure price tags.
Some lawyers and public access groups are outraged by the new fees, which quietly took effect April 23 on the court's website.
"Folks are concerned and feeling that something they used to be able to access free of charge, they're now being charged for," said Leah Wilson, the court's executive officer. Wilson, however, said the court needs the revenue to make up for cutbacks in state aid and the cost of scanning and uploading the documents.
The new fees come as Gov. Jerry Brown has threatened more cutbacks to California's judicial system, including possible courthouse closures, if courts cannot rein in the rising costs of employee pensions and make their operations more efficient "with the goal of increasing access to justice," according to his proposed annual budget. Brown is expected to announce revisions to the budget plan Tuesday.
Wilson said she began looking at new methods to cover operational costs when she became the East Bay court's steward a year ago. The court surveyed other trial courts in the Bay Area and around the state, some of which have already implemented similar fees. Alameda County until recently was one of several courts providing online records for free. Many others counties, including Contra Costa, do not offer case documents online, forcing those who want to view documents to get them the old-fashioned way: by visiting the clerk's office.
California code dictates the maximum amount that courts can charge for both paper and online records, but each court has authority over whether to adopt such fees.
Sacramento County Superior Court is charging new fees beginning this summer -- $1 for each of the first five pages viewed and 40 cents for subsequent pages, plus $1 for each search. Los Angeles County Superior Court already charges a fee that starts at $4.75 for each record search. Santa Clara County plans to begin charging in two to four years, depending on the amount of time it takes to digitize records.
"There's a budget crisis in the courts. Revenue is part of the solution, a small part of the solution," said Teresa Ruano, spokeswoman for the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.
Wilson said the new Alameda County charges are also accompanied by better functionality. Once only searchable by case number, documents can now be found by typing the name of a plaintiff or defendant.
Clerks in the Oakland courthouses scanned about 185,000 documents in January alone, and another 56,000 documents were scanned in the Hayward Hall of Justice, according to an analysis by the court. At that rate, the Alameda County Superior Court system is producing nearly 3 million scanned documents each year -- and it costs money to put all that information online.
But the price of looking up Alameda County court cases is now among "the highest rates I've heard of," far more expensive than what the federal government charges to look up documents, said Peter Scheer, director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.
The federal website, known as PACER, charges 10 cents for each page retrieved and caps the charges at $3 for any single document. By not adopting a uniform statewide system and fee structure, Scheer said California is foregoing the benefits of economies of scale.
The costs are troubling for court clients who need easy access to records, he said.
"While it is true that the courts have experienced very severe budget cutbacks, and they have to do everything they reasonably can to align their costs with their revenues, they have to do that in a way that doesn't basically declare the court system to be completely off-limits to the people," Scheer said.
Some East Bay nonprofit groups are trying to negotiate for waivers.
"This represents a significant barrier to low-income and marginalized people who already have problems accessing the courts and accessing justice," said Tirien Steinbach, an attorney who directs the East Bay Community Law Center.
The court is now considering allowing free access to certain groups, such as nonprofit organizations and government entities, but "without jeopardizing the overall intent and purpose of charging for the access," Wilson said. "The exceptions can't become the rule."