The state Senate approved a bill in line with the state auditor’s recommendations for a fee increase.

By LYLE MORAN| Posted: May 31, 2019 at 2:14 PM
Source: Above The Law

The California Senate approved legislation this week that would increase annual State Bar fees for active lawyers by nearly 40 percent.

The bill would require practicing lawyers to pay $535 in bar fees next year, up from $383.

The Senate’s proposal to raise fees largely mirrors recent recommendations from the state auditor, and SB 176 will now head to the state Assembly after a 32-4 vote in the Senate.

If the bill is enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor, it would generate the first increase in the basic bar fee in roughly two decades.

The bar had proposed active lawyers be mandated to pay $813 next year to help the agency address growing budget deficits, bolster its attorney discipline system, and undertake a variety of initiatives, including replacing aging technology systems. However, California State Auditor Elaine Howle said some of the planned spending could be spread over several years or shelved, and she suggested other ways the agency could boost revenue.

Jason P. Lee, chair of the bar’s Board of Trustees, said the agency was pleased the updated fee bill includes “a much-needed increase for the State Bar.”

“The numbers in the bill appear based, for the most part, on the State Auditor’s recommendations, which we agreed with,” Lee said in a statement. “We hope that the Legislature proceeds with this increase while also acknowledging the rest of the State Auditor’s recommendations — that a new, more stable and predictable fee-setting approach, one which allows for supported increases over reasonable time increments, is needed for the State Bar to fulfill its public protection mission and sustain its reform agenda.”

The amended legislation would boost the basic bar fee lawyers must pay from $315 to $379. It would double to $80 the amount lawyers must pay to support the Client Security Fund, which reimburses victims of attorney misconduct.

The bill would also mandate attorneys pay $22 for IT projects, $16 for capital improvements, and $3 to bolster the bar’s general fund reserve.

SB 176’s only departure from the auditor’s recommendations is that it would require attorneys to keep supporting the Lawyer Assistance Program with a $10 payment, a fee the auditor suggested be temporarily suspended due to an excess reserve.

Inactive lawyers would have to pay $149 next year under the bill approved by the Senate.

The state Assembly has been much more aggressive in its oversight of the bar in recent years, so whether they are as amenable to significantly increasing the bar fee remains to be seen.

Lawmakers and staff from the Assembly Judiciary Committee were key drivers of the successful push to split up the bar through 2017 legislation.

The Assembly will be closely watching a report the Legislative Analyst’s Office will produce on the bar’s use of fee revenue by July 1.

The California Lawyers Association, which was created as a result of the bar’s de-unification and has roughly 100,000 members, has yet to take a position on the fee bill.

“CLA is continuing to monitor the situation and collect feedback from our members,” CLA President Heather Rosing said in a statement. “The CLA leadership is analyzing the recent audit report and amendments, including the fee scaling issue. CLA will determine where its voice can be most effective in this process.”

Some voluntary bar associations have raised concerns about a State Bar sizable fee increase, with the Orange County Bar Association writing a letter outlining its worries to state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the author of the fee legislation.

The Orange County association wrote that even the auditor’s proposed fee increase to $525 “could have distressing effects on the OCBA’s and other local bar associations’ ability to deliver legal services to underserved populations, albeit not as significant and devastating an effect as the State Bar’s proposed increase to $813.”

Meanwhile, the San Diego County Bar Association sent an email to its membership this week saying it was also monitoring the situation.

Lyle Moran is a freelance writer in San Diego who handles both journalism and content writing projects. He previously reported for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, Associated Press, and Lowell Sun. He can be reached at lmoransun@gmail.com and found on Twitter @lylemoran.

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