Washington Supreme Court Update: Greater Access to the Courts

The Washington Supreme Court recently issued a decision that will provide greater access to Washington’s courts to the indigent of this state.  In Jafar v. Webb, (read the decision at Justia here), Ms. Jafar filed an action in Superior Court to obtain a parenting plan involving her young son.  Because Ms. Jafar was indigent—after her monthly expenses of $380, she had only $5 remaining from the monthly public assistance she received—she sought a waiver of the $250 in court fees incurred by filing her action.  Though the trial court agreed that Jafar was indigent, it declined to issue a full fee waiver, ordering that if Jafar did not pay $50 in court fees her case would be dismissed.  The Supreme Court accepted direct review and held that once a litigant is deemed indigent under one of the three definitions contained in General Rule 34, the trial court has no discretion to deny or issue a partial waiver but must waive all fees.  In reaching its decision, the Court noted that Washington’s GR 34 goes beyond the constitutional due process baseline articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  While due process only requires waivers in those cases “‘involving state controls or intrusions on family relationships”‘ such as divorce or alteration of parental rights, Washington requires fee waivers for indigent litigants in all cases.  Id. at pg. 12 (quoting M.L.B. v. S.L.J., 519 U.S. 102 (1996)).

— Sarah Gohmann Bigelow

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