The following questions were submitted to John Roska, a lawyer/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," ran in the Champaign News Gazette.
I got sued in Small Claims court. I went to court and asked for a trial. The Judge scheduled one but told me I had to pay an "appearance fee" before that date. If I don't, I lose. Is that right? Why do I have to pay, if I didn't file anything?
You can argue that the appearance fee shouldn't be required. But, you're probably better off just asking to waive it. If you're poor, all court fees can be waived.
Court fees keep the courthouse running. People who file court cases create more work for the court system, so it's reasonable that they should have to pay to help run that system.
It's less clear why someone involuntarily hauled into court should have to pay for the privilege. Often, they never file a single paper the system must process.
But, trials are more work than settlements or default judgments. So, arguably, anyone wanting a trial should have to pay for it.
Appearance fees in Small Claims court vary. In Champaign County, they range from $207 to $237. In Vermilion County, they're $160 to $165. In Cook County, appearance fees start at $207.
Often, that fee must be paid by a deadline. If you don't pay, you can lose by default.
You do not default because you didn't show up - the usual way someone loses by default. You're defaulted for not paying the appearance fee.
So, even if you show up for a scheduled trial or another court date, you may find out you lost because you didn't pay the appearance fee.
If you're lucky, you'll get one last chance to avoid a default by paying the fee. But not necessarily. The judge may say it's too late.
If you're poor, there's a way around an appearance fee. Actually, either side - Plaintiff or Defendant - can ask that court fees be waived.
You automatically qualify for a waiver of court fees if you receive Food Stamps, SSI, any kind of state assistance, or if your "available income" is less than 125% of the Federal poverty guidelines. For a family of 4, that's currently $2,562 a month.
In fact, each Circuit Clerk is required to post a notice about fee waivers "in a conspicuous place in the courthouse." Not all do.
After you complete the form, file it with the Circuit Clerk. They'll have a Judge review it.
If it's approved, everything's waived. That includes appearance fees, filing fees, fees to serve summonses, jury fees, and publication fees.
Updated: February 2018