Legislation making its way through the North Carolina Senate would award automatic recovery of legal fees to plaintiffs who win open records cases against government agencies. Although current state law allows a judge to award attorney fees to successful public records plaintiffs, this practice is not required.
Introduced Tuesday by state Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, the proposed bill would eliminate judges’ discretion to award these legal fees, mandating that parties who win open records cases be reimbursed for their litigation expenses.
Most states either already have laws providing for the routine awarding of attorney fees in open public records cases or impose automatic criminal sanctions when government agencies or departments violate open records laws. Currently, North Carolina provides for neither, and the proposed bill seeks to remedy this.
The new legislation was prompted by a case in which a state newspaper won its open records lawsuit, only to be left with $50,000 in legal fees. The bill would also create an Open Government Unit in the North Carolina Department of Justice.