Approximately 130 cities and towns in South Carolina operate municipal courts but do not receive indigent defense services from circuit public defender offices. These cities do not receive indigent defense services because of a 2015 budget proviso that prohibits public defenders from representing indigents in municipal court unless there is an agreement between the municipality and the relevant circuit public defender's office.
Cities that do not have an agreement with their public defender's office do not receive services, and should not be collecting the $40 indigent defense application fee provided for in Section 17-3-30 of the S.C. Code. Out of the roughly 209 municipal courts currently in operation, only 78 have entered into such agreements.
"The Municipal Association worked with the Commission on Indigent Defense to clarify that municipalities not receiving public defender services as defined under the statute should not be required to collect the statutorily mandated fee," said Tiger Wells, government affairs liaison for the Municipal Association.
"However, cities that receive those services should collect that fee."
Before the passage of budget proviso 61.12, Section 17-3-30 of the S.C. Code of Laws was interpreted to require municipal courts to take a $40 application fee from indigents and to remit that fee to the state. Once the proviso became law, municipal officials wondered if, in cases where there was no agreement between the municipality and the circuit public defender's office, the application fee was still required.
During the 2017 legislative session, the Municipal Association sought an agreement with the Office of Indigent Defense on this issue and proposed a legislative change to clarify which circumstances required municipal courts to collect the $40 fee.
The Association and the Office of Indigent Defense reached an agreement in January, likely rendering unnecessary any clarifying legislation.
The Office of Indigent Defense and the S.C. Court Administration agreed that it was inappropriate to require an indigent defendant to pay the $40 application fee required by Section 17-3-30 in courts that did not receive public defender services. The S.C. Court Administration also agreed that the code section should not be interpreted to require payment.
"Municipal courts that do not receive public defender services should not be required to extract an application fee from indigents for services that are unavailable," said Wells.
"This resolution makes perfect sense to clear up the ambiguity created by the budget proviso."