Fenwick Wins Pro Bono Washington Supreme Court Victory for Access to Justice

June 12, 2013 (Seattle, WA) – Fenwick & West is pleased to announce a pro bono victory for access to justice. Partner Brian Buckley in partnership with Legal Voice, a nonprofit women’s rights legal organization, obtained a Washington Supreme Court ruling on May 23 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. Ms. Jafar’s annual income was $4,620, which is just 30 percent 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 Ms. 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. Buckley and Legal Voice took her case to the Washington Supreme Court, asking it to rule that she should not have to pay any fees.

“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,” Buckley said.

Lisa M. Stone, executive director of Legal Voice, 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.

About Fenwick & West
For more than 30 years, law firm Fenwick & West has served its community by offering legal services to persons and organizations that could not otherwise afford effective legal counsel. Recognizing that one firm can only do so much, we regularly partner with our clients and likeminded outside organizations that share our belief in the importance of giving back to the community. Our pro bono commitment is engrained in our culture. It is a part of who our attorneys are and what makes our firm great. In 2012, Fenwick was awarded the “Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award” by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California for commitment to pro bono services.

About Legal Voice
Legal Voice is a nonprofit women’s rights legal organization that pursues justice for all women and girls in the Northwest through ground-breaking litigation, legislative advocacy, and educational tools to help individuals understand their rights.