Legislature fails to remove ignorance excuse

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THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL GUEST EDITORIALS THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK, HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.  

Author: David Taylor

When push comes to shove, size matters.  In court, size is measured in attorney’s fees.  The one with the more expensive lawyer more often wins.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.  With Right to Know, it’s often an average citizen against a municipal government.  Spending taxpayer’s money, the city has the advantage.

It’s actually worse.  Since Right to Know is such a basic right, a right to just get information, there isn’t any money in it.  When an average citizen asks a lawyer to take a Right to Know case, they have to come up with thousands of dollars up front because the lawyer knows he’s got little chance of winning attorney’s fees.  More often than not, this forces the average citizen to drop the suit, or brave the courts on his or her own.  This stacks the odds against the average citizen.

This year, Right to Know NH tried to tip the balance back toward the citizen.  After all, government works for the citizen.  RTKNH proposed HB365 to remove a hurdle for citizens to recover attorney’s fees, which would lead to more lawyers being more willing to take on cases, and more citizens successfully defending their basic right.

The Right-to-Know Law only awards attorney’s fees if the city “knew or should have known” that they violated the law.  In practice that is a high bar.  If the city’s attorney said the city acted on his legal advice, then they win.  If the N.H. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the specific statute, then they win.  If the statute changed within the last year, then they win.  A score card by the Center for Public Integrity a year ago flagged this specific provision as one of the main reasons New Hampshire got an F – and the second worst grade of all 50 states.

HB365 sought to remove “knew or should have known,” so that if a city violated the law, then they would pay attorney’s fees.  Remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse.  But, on a very close vote of 168 to 172 on reconsideration, HB365 was finally defeated in the House just last week.

As a result, the law remains tipped against the average citizen and New Hampshire will keep it’s F grade.  Right to Know NH will continue to fight for the average citizen in the future.  But, we need your help.  Get engaged, assert your rights, raise your voice, and help tip the balance back in your favor the next time a bill like HB365 is up for vote.

 David Taylor  is Vice President of Right to Know New Hampshire and a resident of Durham.  He can be emailed at righttoknownh@gmail.com

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