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In forma pauperis means "in the character or manner of a pauper". The phrase is Latin in origin. In certain legal proceedings, a person may file a request seeking permission from the court to proceed with a case in forma pauperis, which means the person is asking the court to waive its filing fees. It is a legal status afforded to a person by the court and enables people of low income or no income to have access to the courts.
The U.S., Canada, South Africa and many other jurisdictions have procedures in place that allow a person to proceed with a case in forma pauperis. In the U.S., a judge must determine whether an individual is of low income before granting the status. Each U.S. jurisdiction will have its own procedures used to determine whether a person is of low income. A person typically is considered to be of low income if they receive public assistance of some type. If a person is determined to have low income, the judge is obligated to grant the request to proceed in forma pauperis.
The actual procedure to request a waiver of court costs and fees is contained in the court’s rules of procedure. The rules usually require that an applicant make the request by filing a motion, application or petition. The applicant must sign the document before a notary and file it with the court along with any supporting documents required by the rules. The rules may not refer to this procedure as in forma pauperis. It may simply be called a request for waiver of costs and fees.
Rules establishing in forma pauperis procedures ensure that low-income people have access to the courts. It enables them to get divorces, seek change-of-custody orders and pursue other types of remedies that only courts can provide. Without such access to the courts, low-income individuals would not be as easily able to obtain relief.
A great number of in forma pauperis requests in the U.S. come from prisoners pursuing claims. Critiques deem many of these requests to be frivolous. This has led many jurisdictions to create additional rules that allow the court to examine the substance of the complaint. If the court determines the complaint is clearly frivolous, the judge will deny the request. The judge also will deny the petition if the alleged facts would not entitle the petitioner to relief.
Even if a judge grants an individual the right to proceed with a case in forma pauperis, it will not necessarily eliminate all costs of pursuing a legal action. Court rules may, for example, require a party to pay witness fees, the cost for depositions or fees for copying. The rules or statutes concerning which fees a court must waive vary for each jurisdiction.
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