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Access to Justice – State Courts Must Waive All Fees for Indigent Civil Litigants

June 12, 2013 

Category:  Courts and Criminal Justice System

Access to Justice – State Courts Must Waive All Fees for Indigent Civil Litigants

Several years ago, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a court rule (General Rule (GR) 34) that abolished court fees for low-income people.  After enactment of GR 34, state courts waived filing fees for indigent litigants. However, some courts imposed their own local surcharges.  This practice of adding local surcharges was challenged in court, and, in the case of Jafar v. Webb, the state supreme court reaffirmed that, if a person is found to be indigent under the rule, courts must waive all fees and surcharges.


This ruling, issued on May 23, 2013,  is based on an action brought by a low-income mother who tried to file a parenting plan after she was determined by the trial court to be indigent.  The mother’s  income totaled $380 a month, well below established poverty lines.  Despite a court finding of indigency, the mother was assessed local surcharges totaling $50 to be paid within 90 days, with the notation that the action would be dismissed if not paid within that time.


According to the supreme court, GR 34 creates uniform, mandatory standards for granting civil fee waivers:


Any individual, on the basis of indigent status as defined herein, may seek a waiver  of filing fees or surcharges the payment of which is a condition precedent to a litigant's ability to secure access to judicial relief from a judicial officer in the applicable trial court.


When the court rule was adopted, the stated purpose of the rule was to establish "a statewide, uniform approach to presentation, consideration and approval of requests for waiver of fees and costs for low income civil litigants."


Once a determination of indigency is made, the rule requires a complete waiver of all fees to allow equal access to justice in the courts.  Discretionary fee waiver would likely lead to “inconsistent results and disparate treatment of similarly situated individuals, the very problems the rule was designed to address.”


Based on the ruling in the Jafar case, courts must waive all fees and costs for individuals who meet the indigency standard.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.


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