On May 23, in a victory for access to justice, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Washington courts cannot charge indigent litigants fees or costs associated with filing a case. In strong language, the Court stated that the court rule at issue, General Rule (GR) 34, "was adopted to ensure that indigent litigants have equal access to justice. Any fees required of indigent litigants are invalid and must be waived under the rule."
Abeda Jafar filed an action in Snohomish County for a parenting plan with her child's father, in part because she feared for the child's safety. Jafar's annual income was $4,620, which is just 30% of the federal poverty guideline for a family of two, and she was eligible for a free legal service provider because of her low income. Yet when Jafar asked the Snohomish County Superior Court to waive her filing fees, it granted only a partial waiver of the mandatory fees and required her to pay $50 in surcharges within 90 days or she would risk dismissal of her case. Legal Voice took her case to the Washington Supreme Court, asking it to rule that she should not have to pay any fees.
Legal Voice Executive Director Lisa M. Stone hailed the ruling, stating, "Courts, like everyone these days, may be cash-strapped, but that doesn't mean it is acceptable to balance the courts' budget on the backs of people who can least afford it. This decision ensures access to the courts for all low-income persons, which is particularly important for women like Ms. Jafar who are survivors of domestic abuse and otherwise might be deprived of the ability to seek judicial relief."
The Court recognized that constitutionally based "principles of due process and equal protection require that indigent litigants have access to the courts. Once the trial court determines that a litigant is indigent, the rule then requires a complete waiver in order to allow access to the courts. No language in the rule exists supporting a grant of a partial waiver for indigent litigants, nor … could such a decision be supportable."
While Jafar v. Webb involved an action by the Snohomish County Superior Court in a parenting plan action, the ruling has widespread implications, and applies to indigent litigants who are filing any kind of civil lawsuit, including, for example, dissolution or parenting actions, unfair-housing claims or consumer protection suits. If a court determines that a person meets the GR 34 standards for indigency, the court is required to waive all filing fees and other charges.
As Legal Voice cooperating counsel Brian Buckley of Fenwick & West stated, "The Court's decision is a victory for equal justice and will have a profound impact on the most vulnerable members of our community. It is now clearly established that Washington's courts are open to all, regardless of their ability to pay."
Legal Voice is a nonprofit, women's rights legal organization that pursues justice for all women and girls in the Northwest through groundbreaking litigation, legislative advocacy and educational tools to help individuals understand their rights.
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