Law Office of John S. Palmer Attorney at Law

(425) 455-5513

Waiver of Court Fees for Indigent Litigants

Posted Monday, June 24, 2013 by John S. Palmer

The Washington Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that General Court Rule 34 requires Washington courts to waive all court fees and surcharges for litigants who have been found to be indigent under the rule.

GR 34 states that indigent parties “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.” A party may be found to be indigent in various ways, such as if they are receiving assistance under a needs-based, means-tested assistance program such TANF, SSI or food stamps; if his or her income is at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline; or if “other compelling circumstances exist that demonstrate an applicant’s inability to pay fees and/or surcharges.”

Some counties interpreted the rule to permit filing fees and other charges to be reduced rather than waived entirely. This interpretation was challenged by a mother in a Snohomish County custody case who was living on food stamps and $385 per month in TANF cash assistance. The court waived the filing fee but required her to pay $50 in other charges within 90 days.

The Washington Supreme Court took the case (Jafar v. Webb, decided May 23, 2013) and unanimously ruled that GR 34 requires a complete waiver of all fees for qualified parties:

The plain meaning of GR 34 establishes that a trial court must waive all fees once a litigant is determined to be indigent under the rule. The language of the rule provides expressly for “waiver,” and no language exists that “waiver” is anything except waiver of all fees.

Although the named parties in the case were the parents of the minor child at issue in the custody case, several groups appeared as amici curiae, including the ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Justice Project.

It appears that the only group arguing in favor of interpreting GR 34 to permit a partial waiver of fees was the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO). However, the Court said that adopting WACO’s position would “allow trial courts to impose fees on persons who, in every practical sense, lack the financial ability to pay those fees” and noted that “principles of due process or equal protection require that indigent litigants have access to the courts and require a complete waiver of fees.”

If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at (425) 455-5513, toll free at (877) 455-5513, or

Local: (425) 455-5513
Toll Free: (877) 455-5513
Fax: (425) 455-5546
Law Office of John S. Palmer11911 NE 1st St, Ste. B204,Bellevue, WA 98005-3056