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Friday, May 30, 2008

NC Bill Would Shift Fees...

Government agencies would be required to pay citizens' lawyer bills when they illegally deny access to public records, under a legislative proposal the sponsor says was spurred by several recent newspaper lawsuits.

The bill, introduced by Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, would ensure citizens and groups receive money to cover their legal costs when they sue for access to public records under the state's open records law.

Hoyle, a longtime proponent of open government laws, said the measure would make government agencies think twice about denying access to public records.

"I think this may cause them to pause and say, 'Wait, why did I want this, and if I happen to lose in this situation, it could cost me some money,'" Hoyle said. "I think you'll see less litigation."

Many government organizations have opposed similar proposals in the past, citing fears that they will be hit with big legal bills for unintentionally blocking access to public records.

Current state law leaves legal fee awards up to a judge's discretion. That means courts can decide to award no money or part of the victors' legal tabs if it decides the agency had "substantial justification in denying access" or there were circumstances which would make awards "unjust."

The bill would make payment of "reasonable" legal fees, as determined by a judge, mandatory, Hoyle said.

More here.

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