Civil rights and social advocacy groups are reeling from the High Court of Justice's decision Wednesday to impose NIS 45,000 in court expenses - a startlingly large sum - on petitioners in a healthcare case.

The court imposed the fee on the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights and the Adva Center, which had petitioned unsuccessfully to prevent doctors from offering private treatment in the public hospital being built in Ashdod. The groups said that paying the court expenses will seriously damage their ability to function.

Activists say Supreme Court President Asher Grunis has been imposing exceptionally high court expenses on groups that petition on the public's behalf. They say Grunis believes the court should reduce its intervention in government and Knesset decisions. He has spoken in the past in favor of limiting the ability of watchdog groups to petition the High Court.

In recent months, petitioners on sensitive public issues have been hit with considerably higher court expenses than in the past. Last month the Ometz NGO, which fights government corruption, was charged NIS 15,000 in court expenses - much more than it had ever been charged before - after submitting a petition to instruct the attorney general to open a criminal investigation into the Harpaz affair.

Former journalist Arye Avneri, Ometz's leader, said he was shocked by the large sum. "Ometz exists only on contributions," Avneri said. "We don't take money from tycoons, we're all volunteers and can only pay for a part-time secretary. NIS 15,000 makes us think several times whether we can petition for the public again."

He said Ometz will have to reconsider submitting a petition it is working on against what he called the state prosecution's foot-dragging over whether to indict mayors suspected of criminal offenses, including Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani and Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar.

The Movement for Quality in Government was also charged with heavy court expenses over two cases in recent months. The movement, which submitted nine petitions to the High Court since the beginning of the year, was charged NIS 17,000 after its petition against alleged police misconduct was denied.

"Such high expenses on public petitioners, most of whom rely on donations, can curtail the movement's legal activity," says the movement's attorney Mika Kohner Kerten.

Disagreement on bench

The Supreme Court this month reduced the fee imposed on the Gisha advocacy group, which appealed the NIS 25,000 charge imposed by the Be'er Sheva District Court after denying a petition on behalf of six women over 40 to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque on the Muslim holidays.

Justice Uzi Vogelman reduced the sum to NIS 12,000, emphasizing the importance of such petitions and appeals. He said such court actions advance the rule of law and constitutional principles and rectify fundamental flaws in public administration.

Vogelman wrote that the courts should restrict the expenses they impose on public petitioners to avoid deterring them from taking legal steps for the public good.

In contrast, Supreme Court deputy president Miriam Naor, who was also on the panel, thought the expenses should not be reduced. Naor wrote that even if the fees were higher than in the past, the Supreme Court should not intervene in the lower court's discretion on this issue.

In April, Gisha was charged NIS 3,000 in expenses after petitioning for a prisoner who had asked the Israel Prison Service to return him to his home in the West Bank, not to his home in Gaza. In another, similar case, Gisha was not asked to pay expenses at all, as had been customary in such cases.

Gisha attorney Sari Bashi said she was worried by the increasing trend to charge human rights groups and Palestinian petitioners for court expenses. "This is how they discourage Palestinians from seeking judicial help pertaining to issues that deeply affect their life," she says.

Attorney Dan Yakir of ACRI said that until this week, the association had only been charged court expenses once in its 30 years of activity. That was in 1989, when the association represented a private petitioner whose petition was denied. This week's petition, on the other hand, was public, Yakir noted.

Courts spokeswoman Ayelet Pilo said the court "imposes expenses in each case according to the circumstances. The expenses are usually determined by considerations regarding the petition. ... When the petitioners are commercial, unlike public ones, the expenses are higher."