Recently, a Legal Aid attorney told me about a client who needed to file an emergency motion for custody after the other parent attempted to murder her. The attorney helped her complete an application for a waiver of court fees, but her application was denied. The client was, in fact, very low income, and she did not have the $20 necessary to file the important motion. Legal Aid was eventually able to find funds to pay the filing fee, but for this client and so many others, the court’s fee waiver process was unfair and a significant barrier to their ability to get the help they needed from the courts.
No longer. In October 2022, D.C. Council passed a comprehensive update to the fee waiver process for low-income litigants – the first time this law was substantively changed since 1977. The law, “Expanding Fee Waivers for Low-Income Litigants Act of 2021,” went into effect in February 2023. The new law significantly increases access to justice by expanding the category of litigants who are guaranteed fee-waivers. Now, recipients of thirty-three means-tested public benefits (including recipients of Medicaid, SNAP, and assistance under the U.S. Housing Act), applicants whose monthly income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty line, and applicants who are represented by legal services organizations are guaranteed fee-waivers in D.C. Courts.
That means a low-income tenant who seeks to assert a jury demand in an eviction action can more easily get her $75 filing fee waived, and a low-income litigant appealing to the D.C. Court of Appeals can more easily get the $100 filing fee waived. That means the client who needed an emergency motion will not have the same struggles to pay for emergency help if she returns to court.
The new law not only expands statutorily-guaranteed eligibility for litigants, it also increases court efficiency. The law authorizes the Court to delegate to clerks the ability to approve fee waivers for statutorily-eligible litigants, making access to fee waivers significantly faster. Enabling court clerks to approve many categories of fee waiver requests rather than requiring judicial approval also helps ease the workload for already-burdened judges and creates a more efficient court system.
Increasing access to justice for D.C. residents has long been a Legal Aid priority. In 2010, former Legal Aid Executive Director Eric Angel shared a blog post about important improvements to the Court’s fee waiver rule. Since then, countless Legal Aiders have fought for increased access for clients and the client community – whether in an individual case or systemically through policy, rules, and legislation. This updated legislation is an exciting advance that builds on their work.
For several years, Legal Aid has worked with Councilmember Charles Allen’s staff and partner organizations to bring this legislation to the D.C. Council and ensure its passage. We are grateful for their work and partnership, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate to improve access to justice for all D.C. residents.