March 12, 2021 – A new form available through the Wisconsin Court System website makes it less burdensome for indigent individuals to obtain a waiver of court fees and costs by allowing their pro bono, legal aid, or public defender attorneys to submit a petition requesting the fee waiver.
Indigent individuals can still submit petitions for waivers if they cannot pay court filing and/or service fees. They must complete the form, have it notarized, and file it with the court, or have their pro bono, civil legal aid, or public defender attorneys file it for them.
Now, however, pro bono, civil legal aid, and public defender attorneys can personally attest to their clients’ indigency by using the new attorney’s petition for waiver of fees and costs.
Pro bono programs and civil legal aid organizations such as Legal Action of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Judicare, and other legal aid organizations and programs partially funded by the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) already determine eligibility for free legal help based on the federal poverty guidelines and proof of eligibility.
Similarly, adult applicants are required to meet financial guidelines in order to qualify for a public defender in Wisconsin. Thus, the court system is now allowing these attorneys to attest that their client is indigent and cannot pay the court filing and service fees.
It is currently $20 to electronically file a case as a petitioner or opt into an e-filed case as a respondent. Other fees and costs apply based on the type of matter commenced.
Attorney Beth Ann Richlen, executive director of Wisconsin Judicare in Wausau, says Judicare often pays the $20 opt-in fee because attorneys must act quickly to preserve a client’s rights, and there are barriers for clients to sign and return the waiver form.
For instance, the client needs to get the form notarized, which requires a driver’s license, and they need access to a scanner, the internet, or a fax machine. Otherwise, the forms must be notarized and returned via postal mail, which can cause delays.
Wisconsin Judicare will often opt-in and submit the waiver requests later to recoup fees. “But it’s a lot of work to get that done,” she said. “The cost in attorney time to draft the documents, get them back, and filing them – those are costs that add up, really fast.”
Judicare is a civil legal service provider for Wisconsin’s 33 northern counties and 11 federally recognized Indian tribes, providing free legal services. The organization runs largely on grants, so the ability to obtain fee waivers is an important tool.
The organization has already determined the client is indigent for purposes of representation, Richlen says. So allowing the attorney to attest to indigency, by affidavit, and request the fee waiver saves the organization time and money. “We had started to spend a significant amount of time litigating these issues,” said Richlen.
Richlen said her colleagues and others in the civil legal aid community were surprised and delighted to learn about the new form, which removes barriers to access to justice, because they have been talking about the issue for a while.
State Bar of Wisconsin Pro Bono Program Manager Jeff Brown said the new form is also big deal for volunteer attorneys, who were previously required to jump through similar hoops to get fee waivers approved.
“It’s great to see efforts like this by the Wisconsin Court System to help improve access to legal representation for indigent clients,” said Brown.
Link to the new form (CV-485).