Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Want a Divorce? Step right up and pay pay pay

All around the northwest folks are complaining about the ‘historic’ heat wave – Boise 92°, Seattle 95°, Portland 101° – and lamenting the absence of air-conditioning in their homes and offices. Setting aside how spoiled we may be with respect to weather compared to the rest of the country, I couldn’t help reminding myself that most of us at least are able to plug in a fan, or use air conditioning if our homes are equipped.

But what would it be like if you had to choose between paying your utility bill and getting a divorce? Between obtaining a protection order against your abuser and feeding your children? How can anyone make those choices? Yet they do. As things stand now, they have to.

Since 1971 it has been settled law that a poor person who could not afford the filing fee for a divorce is constitutionally entitled to have the fee waived. In Boddie v. Connecticut the U.S. Supreme Court held that due process prevents a state from refusing a divorce because of inability to pay. Now, almost 40 years later, that fundamental right is being denied to women and men all around the State of Washington.

There’s no doubt the legal system throughout the country faces extreme financial challenges, challenges that in Washington are exacerbated by our outmoded and ineffective funding system. Washington ranks 50th among the states in state funding for trial-court related operations. Legal Voice supports the efforts of the Equal Justice Coalition and others to increase funding for the courts and for legal services, and we encourage you to do the same.

But even as we advocate for increased funding for legal aid, we have to stand up against the response of courts around the state, which is to impose extra filing fees for various motions and other procedures in divorce matters, and then refuse to waive those fees for indigent persons. This tactic is not only unfair, it’s just plain UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that’s still considered a bad thing, especially when perpetrated by the very court system to which we turn for protection of our rights.

From Spokane to Everett, from Vancouver to Bellingham, women and men who want to get divorced are being turned away, told they have to wait until they have saved enough money to pay the extra fees, and just plain deprived of their rights. We’re getting reports that court clerks, judges and commissioners are refusing to process divorces unless the person pays those fees. And, as is often the case when justice goes awry, this happens mostly to people who are pro se (representing themselves).

So here’s a heads-up: if you are getting divorced, and you are truly indigent, you have a constitutional right to get that procedure handled in court without paying extra fees. If it happens to you, we want to know about it. And another heads-up: if you’re one of the officials or institutions depriving people of that right, you should know that Legal Voice is on the case.

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