Court Fees Often Serve as Barrier to Accessing Justice

When a Montana couple were facing eviction, they nearly became homeless for one reason: they couldn't afford to pay $60 in court fees that would allow them to respond to their eviction notice in court. They tried to file for a fee waiver based on their lack of income, but when the judge denied their request, they were left with few options. If they didn't pay the fee, their landlord could have gotten a default judgement against them. They could have been evicted without any opportunity to defend themselves.

Luckily, they were able to reach out to MLSA for help. MLSA Attorney Amy Hall took their case to the Montana Supreme Court, which decided in their favor that the judge should not have charged them a fee. With MLSA's help, they worked with a rent assistance program to help them pay their rent on time, and they were able to stay in their home.

Unfortunately, being unable to pay a court fee is one of the main barriers low income people face when trying to access our justice system. In a recently published ThinkProgress article "Judges Across the Country Are Shaking Down Poor People," editor Bryce Covert writes that although all 50 states require court fees to be waived for people deemed too poor to pay, in many states there are no rules about who will automatically receive fee waivers. As a result, thousands of low income people across the country still face having to pay court fees they cannot afford for the right to argue their case in court.

This is a big reason why having access to civil legal aid matters in the lives of low income people – it can make all the difference in determining if a person is able to have their court fees waived or if they will have to try to pay a fee they cannot afford to gain access to our justice system. Click here to read more about how MLSA and other civil legal aid organizations are working to make it easier for all Americans to gain access to justice, no matter their income.