Judges Across The Country Are Shaking Down Poor People

Court fees stand in the way of justice for poor people.
Feature (NATIONAL)

Bryce Covert
August 24, 2016

Tags: Courts, Fines and Fees, Justice for All

Organizations mentioned/involved: Voices for Civil Justice, Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), Texas Access to Justice Commission (TATJ), Legal Action of Wisconsin


All 50 states and Washington, D.C. have laws that say filing fees should be waived for indigent litigants — anyone too poor to afford them — so that they can still access the courts. “It’s a very universally accepted notion that if a person can’t afford even to get into court, that’s a significant barrier to justice,” said Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice.

But there’s a lot of disagreement about who counts as “poor.”

Five states have the clearest boundaries: anyone who receives government benefits and/or is represented by a legal aid group — given that legal aid organizations only represent people who meet certain financial criteria — is automatically considered too poor to pay, while another seven and Washington, D.C. give the presumption just for those on public benefits.