In December 2010, the Washington Supreme Court adopted a landmark rule that ensures all people have access to the justice system regardless of their ability to pay court fees necessary to obtain judicial relief. We applaud the action of the court and call on all courts to make it easier for people to access justice.
General Rule 34 establishes standards and procedures for obtaining fee waivers that have previously varied between counties and even different judges within a county. These local fees and surcharges force low-income people to either pay from scarce resources used for basic needs or forego judicial relief.
Before GR 34, a woman trying to flee a severely abusive husband whose only income is $586 in temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) could face the following situation: Before she could begin her divorce case against her abuser, she would be required to pay a $20 courthouse facilitator fee in some counties. Then filing initial court papers would entail another $280 fee. These fees are a serious hardship and could be the difference between safety and staying with an abusive spouse.
Many of these situations never come to our attention because low-income people turn away before they get to the courthouse. They have heard that the fees and surcharges required are beyond their ability to pay and the availability of fee waivers is not well explained or communicated. This is an issue requiring much needed attention, especially during these difficult economic times.
The Washington State Supreme Court has stepped up to tackle this issue head on. GR 34 makes our courts available to everyone regardless of their ability to pay – or their geographic location – by requiring that every county have a provision for waiving fees on a statewide form designed by the court. By standardizing the rules across counties, we make it easier for people to understand how to access the system.
GR 34 covers initial filing fees, family court facilitator surcharges, family court service charges, domestic violence prevention surcharges, ex parte fees and other fees that are a condition of securing judicial relief. The standards applied by the court allow people who have been screened for eligibility by a legal aid program to qualify for fee waivers by the filing of a declaration by their legal aid attorney. People on other means tested assistance programs such as TANF or food stamps will also receive waivers.
While fee waivers for people who cannot pay may seem like an easy decision, the landmark nature of the Supreme Court’s rule cannot be understated. Universal access to judicial relief is a fundamental principle of our legal system and a core responsibility of our government. If justice is only available for the wealthy, there is no justice. But today, thousands of low-income households facing urgent legal problems are unable to address them in our courts because they cannot afford it.
For too long this state has been without uniform, state-wide standards and procedures. We applaud the Supreme Court justices for their unanimous action to expand access to justice in Washington State.
By Judge Steven González and King County Councilman Reagan Dunn
González is a King County Superior Court judge and chair of the Washington State Access to Justice Board.
Dunn is a member of the Washington State Bar Association Pro Bono and Legal Aid Committee.