Speaking of Women's Rights: That Was Us! The Jafar Case with Brian Buckley

Saturday, July 12, 2014

That Was Us!
The Jafar Case with Brian Buckley

By Brian Buckley

This year marks Legal Voice's 35th anniversary year. The
That Was Us! series celebrates where we've been and what we've accomplished by creating a patchwork of voices from the people who helped us along the way.

In 2013, I had the privilege of partnering with Legal Voice to advance the rights of indigent litigants, or impoverished persons engaged in a lawsuit, to enjoy equal access to the Washington courts. Our client, 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—just 30% of the federal poverty guideline for a family of two—and she was eligible for a free legal services attorney 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 risk dismissal of her case reinstating the possibility of harm to her or her child. We appealed Ms. Jafar’s case directly to the Washington Supreme Court, seeking a ruling that neither Ms. Jafar nor any indigent person should have to pay any fees to get through the courthouse doors.

On May 23, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling 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.” The Court recognized further 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.

The Supreme 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.
I was honored to work with the amazing, passionate staff at Legal Voice to pursue equal justice, and the result in Jafar was my proudest professional achievement. Thank you, Legal Voice!

Brian Buckley is an attorney with Fenwick & West, LLP, where he focuses his practice on defense and prosecution of high-stakes commercial litigation. Throughout his career, Brian has devoted substantial time to pro bono work, focusing in particular on issues affecting women, children, and the poor. If you would like to contribute a story about how Legal Voice has affected your life, please contact info@legalvoice.org.