Court rule allows low-income people to be excused from paying court fees
When you file a lawsuit or respond to one that has been filed against you, you are usually required to pay a fee to the court. Court fees are charged when you file legal papers, including complaints, motions, and answers. See RULE 1:43. Filing and Other Fees Established Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2B:1-7 (from New Jersey Courts). Courts use the money collected from fees to help operate and maintain the court system. Because you are using the court system to resolve a legal problem, you are expected to pay for part of these costs.
If you do not pay the court fee, you may not be allowed to continue with your case, and the court clerk will refuse to accept your legal papers for filing. This will delay your ability to file a lawsuit or defend against one.
Court fees can be expensive. Fortunately, there is a court rule that allows “indigents” (low-income people), to be excused from paying those fees. This is called a fee waiver. To read the court rule about fee waivers, visit RULE 1:13. Miscellaneous Rules As To Procedure (from New Jersey Courts).
How do I get a fee waiver?
First, you must fill out the filing fee waiver request form, which requires you to report your income, other things that you own, and your expenses and things that you owe. It is important that you answer all questions truthfully. If you give false information, you can be punished by the court. You can either print the Filing Fee Waiver Request form online or go to the court to pick up a copy of the form.
You must also attach supporting documents to prove your income. The filing fee waiver request form tells you some of the things that you have to attach as proof, such as pay stubs or welfare documents, but it does not tell you how many you need to submit to prove your income. In fact, each court may require different supporting documents or different amounts of them.
Before you submit your filing fee waiver request, therefore, you should call the court division manager or the clerk of the court where you are filing your legal papers and ask which supporting documents you need and how many. See Judiciary Directories (from from New Jersey Courts) for contact information for the division managers. The court will not process your request until you have given all of the required documents.
When you have the fee waiver request form and documents ready, call the court and ask how you should submit them. In most counties, you must attach the filing fee waiver request form and supporting documents with the legal papers you are filing and submit everything at the courthouse. In some counties, you are allowed to mail in your fee waiver request form and supporting documents.
How are fee waivers approved?
Each county court has its own ways of deciding if a fee waiver should be granted, so a person who might qualify for a fee waiver in one county might not qualify in another county. In some courts, the judge decides on fee waiver requests according to an income guideline, such as the Federal Poverty Level (See 2017 Poverty Guidelines [from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services ]). Other courts, even in civil, family and non-criminal cases, use the income eligibility guidelines that the New Jersey Public Defender’s office uses for deciding whether someone can get a public defender. Because it is not always clear which income guideline a court is using, when asking a court’s division manager or clerk about the supporting documents you will need to file with the fee waiver form, you can also ask which income guideline will be used. In any event, in deciding to approve or deny a fee waiver request, the judge will use his or her best judgment based on the financial information you provide. Therefore, the financial information you submit should be as accurate and as complete as possible.
There is one part of the fee waiver rule that is particularly important to low-income people who are represented by a Legal Services program, a legal aid society, or a pro bono attorney who works in cooperation with one of these organizations. They can get a fee waiver without first having to obtain a court order—that is, without having to complete a fee waiver form and present supporting documents to a judge. (See RULE 1:13. Miscellaneous Rules As To Procedure [from New Jersey Courts]). But there are some things you need to know about this special rule. First, it requires that the person is represented by a Legal Services program, legal aid society, or pro bono attorney. There must be an attorney who is actually handling your case. It is not enough that you have received legal advice so that you can represent yourself and act pro se. Second, even though the rule seems to require that under these circumstances there must be a fee waiver, some courts have been reluctant to grant it. Sometimes, you might still have to complete the fee waiver application and submit supporting documents, and it is possible that the court will deny your request to have a fee waived. Should this happen, your attorney can ask the judge to reconsider the denial of the request. Alternatively, you should discuss with your attorney whether there are other payment arrangements that you could make.
Who will make the decision?
Your fee waiver request form is usually first read by courthouse staff, such as clerks or the division manager, who will tell you if you have filled out the waiver form correctly or need more supporting documents. Then a judge will make the final decision on your fee waiver request. The judge who decides might be the judge who handles your docket number (or case), or it might be the judge who supervises the business of the court, such as a presiding judge.
How long will it take before I know if my fees have been waived?
Within most courts, decisions are made within one week, but you should call the division manager to find out. It varies by each court, with some decisions made on the same day, and others taking several weeks.
Where can I go if I have more questions?
You can visit the New Jersey Courts website if you have additional questions. You can also call LSNJLAWSM, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) or apply online.