WA Supreme Court Bars Legal Fees for Poor

In a unanimous ruling last week, the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed its rule that indigent litigants have just as much right to use the civil courts as anyone else, and need not pay fees normally charged for merely filing a case.

May 31, 2013

Photo of Abeda Jafar.

In a unanimous ruling last week, the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed its rule that indigent litigants have just as much right to use the civil courts as anyone else, and need not pay fees normally charged for merely filing a case. The ruling in Jafar v. Webb is an important one because it underscores the state Supreme Court’s directive that lower court’s not impose fees on indigent litigants, no matter how desperate a locality may be to subsidize its courts by charging fees to people who use its services.

At issue was the extent to which lower courts could interpret General Rule 34, a decree the state Supreme Court issued three years ago that said all court fees and costs should be waived for the poor. Despite the judiciary’s proposition, county courts continually seek ways to circumvent the ruling. Last January, Abeda Jafar, who lives in Lynwood, Wash., about 17 miles north of Seattle, filed a custody and visitation plan for her then 19-month-old son. Jafar took the action in part because she was concerned about her son’s safety when he was with his father. At the time of the filing, Jafar’s income, in addition to food stamps, was $385 per month. Her monthly expenses were $380 and she did not have any savings. Since her annual income was less than 32 percent of the federal poverty guideline for a family of two, she was eligible to have all court fees waived.

Although a Snohomish County Superior Court Judge found Jafar indigent, and waived the $200 filing fee, she was ordered to pay a “$20 facilitator surcharge” and a “$30 Judicial Stabilization Surcharge” within 90 days. Represented by Legal Voice, a non-profit that advocates for women’s legal rights in the Northwest, and a lawyer from Fenwick & West, Jafar challenged the $50 fee order.

They contended that Rule 34 meant just what it said: that when a litigant is found indigent, all fees are waived. A lower court judge does not have the discretion to impose some fees and not others. Justice Charles Johnson agreed, and noted in his opinion for the court, that the panel could not understand how, with a financial “cushion” of all of $5 per month, “Jafar could make the $50 payment now, within 90 days, or ever.”

Additionally, the court’s decision was not rooted solely in Rule 34. They cited a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases dating to the 1956 decision in Griffin v. Illinois, which said, “[T]here can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”

Despite a growing trend in state and local governments across the country to add or increase the amount of fees that individuals are required to pay as part of their civil and criminal cases in order to fund justice systems during an era of tight budgets, one hopes that lower court judges in states with rules similar to Washington’s are  mindful of the Jada ruling. Placing undue burdens on the poor – no matter how desperate the courts may be for funding – is not a way to dispense justice.

Photo credit: Matt Hubbard