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Victims’ groups seek to end appearance fee in Md. protective orders

“All this bill does is basically clarify any ambiguity that an appearance fee cannot be charged to either side, either the petitioner’s or respondent’s side, in the circuit court,” says Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the measure. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

“All this bill does is basically clarify any ambiguity that an appearance fee cannot be charged to either side, either the petitioner’s or respondent’s side, in the circuit court,” says Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the measure. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Groups representing Maryland domestic violence victims are urging lawmakers to enact legislation barring circuit court clerks from charging attorneys an appearance fee in protective order proceedings, saying the $10 to $20 charge creates a needless hurdle to legal representation at a perilous time.

The groups have stated that a statutory ban on appearance fees in protective order cases would help ensure continued federal assistance to Maryland’s efforts to combat domestic violence.

Under the federal Violence Against Women Act’s grant program, states seeking U.S. assistance must certify that no fees – including attorney appearance charges – accompany a request for a protective order, the groups said.

“While it is the general practice in courts in Maryland to not charge petitioner attorney appearance fees for domestic violence cases, the law is not clear in this regard,” the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence stated in written testimony to legislators regarding House Bill 744.

“We do not want any economic barrier to survivors of domestic violence seeking protection from abuse,” the network added. “HB 744 would clarify that petitioner’s attorney appearance fees shall not be assessed in any domestic violence cases.”

The House of Delegates passed the legislation on a 130-0 vote on March 5, sending the measure to the Senate.

The legislation, when introduced, waived the appearance fee only for attorneys representing those seeking a protective order. The measure, House Bill 744, was amended by the House Judiciary Committee to also waive the fee for counsel representing those against whom the order is sought.

“All this bill does is basically clarify any ambiguity that an appearance fee cannot be charged to either side, either the petitioner’s or respondent’s side, in the circuit court,” Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and HB 744’s chief sponsor, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday. “It’s simply a clarification.”

Dorothy J. Lennig, legal clinic director at House of Ruth Maryland, noted in written testimony the importance of federal funding for her organization that shelters, counsels and provides legal representation for domestic violence victims.

“If the state wants to continue to receive this funding, it must prohibit the collection of petitioner’s counsel fees in protective order cases,” Lennig wrote.

The Women’s Law Center of Maryland and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault stated in separate, written testimony that state law is unclear regarding the collection of appearance fees in protective order proceedings.

Maryland’s Family Law Article prohibits costs from being charged to petitioners in the proceedings but does not mention costs assessed on attorneys. Meanwhile, the state’s Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article calls for circuit court clerks to collect attorney appearance fees and makes no exception for protective order cases, the law center and MCASA stated.

“HB 744 would resolve this potential conflict and make it clear that in no circumstance may a court charge a petitioner an attorney appearance fee in a protection order case,” wrote Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel for MCASA.

The Maryland Judiciary also expressed support for the bill, stating it would “clarify the ambiguity” over whether circuit court clerks are to collect the appearance fees in protective order proceedings.


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