Sometimes law reform can take place below the radar screen, involving dry, technical changes that can nevertheless positively impact hundreds, if not thousands, of low-income District residents in the years to come. The recent rule change regarding how the Court treats requests for fee waivers (known by their Latin name as In Forma Pauperis or IFP filings) is one such reform.
Effective April 11, 2010, the Court has re-vamped and improved the way it treats applications for fee waiver at Superior Court. Over the years, Legal Aid had expressed a wide range of concerns about the Court’s IFP process, including: the difficulty of using the process; the uneven administration of the process; the public nature of the process in certain courts; the unnecessary requirement that the applications had to be notarized; the intrusive nature of the forms some courts made applicants fill out; the difficulty of obtaining free transcripts at the end of a case; etc. All of these problems represented unglamorous, but very real, impediments to our clients obtaining fair access to justice in our courts.
After the Access to Justice Commission raised the issue with the Court, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to look into reforming the rules. Legal Aid sat on the committee, as did other members of the judiciary and bar. Judge Stephanie Duncan-Peters and Judge William M. Jackson, presiding judges of the Civil Division and the Family Court respectively, lead the committee.
The new rules should improve how the IFP process works in a wide variety of ways. Key components of the new rule include:
• There is now a uniform rule to be used in both the Civil Division and the Family Court.
• The application is to be private (ex parte), which should help the proceedings be more confidential and dignified for applicants.
• The application need not be notarized (but can be sworn under penalty of perjury), making it much easier for applicants to fill out.
• The rule clarifies that the Court cannot deny IFP solely because applicant is above poverty guidelines. (Some judges have routinely been denying IFP applications on this ground, even though it is contrary to case law to do so.)
• The rule clarifies that motions for free transcript at the end of case must be granted unless court finds appeal to be frivolous.
• The rule creates a new (less obtrusive/easier to use) form to be filled out for all applications. The form allows individuals receiving a range of public benefits to fill out a simplified form.
These changes represent something of a sea change with respect to how IFP applications are to be handle in Superior Court. A copy of the revised rule, as well as the new form, can be found by clicking here: