Pleading Poverty in Federal Court

73 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2018 Last revised: 9 Jan 2019

See all articles by Andrew Hammond

Andrew Hammond

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: January 15, 2018

Abstract

What must a poor person plead to gain access to the federal courts? How do courts decide when a poor litigant is poor enough? This Article answers those questions with the first comprehensive study of how district courts determine when a litigant may proceed in forma pauperis in a civil lawsuit. This Article shows that district courts lack standards to determine a litigant’s poverty and often require litigants to answer an array of questions to little effect. As a result, discrepancies in federal practice abound — across and within district courts — and produce a pleading system that is arbitrary, inefficient, and invasive. This Article makes four contributions. First, it codes all the poverty pleadings currently used by the 94 federal district courts. Second, the Article shows that the flaws of these pleading procedures are neither inevitable nor characteristic of poverty determinations. By comparing federal practice to other federal means tests and state court practices, the Article demonstrates that a more streamlined, yet rights-respecting approach is possible. Third, the Article proposes a coherent in forma pauperis standard — one that would align federal practice with federal law, promote reasoned judicial administration, and protect the dignity of litigants. Such a solution proves that judges need not choose between extending access to justice and preserving court resources. In this instance and perhaps others, judges can serve both commitments of the federal system. Fourth, the Article illustrates how to study procedure from the bottom up. Given the persistent levels of inequality in American society, no account of civil procedure is complete without an understanding of how poor people litigate today.

Keywords: civil procedure, federal courts, access to justice

Suggested Citation

Hammond, Andrew, Pleading Poverty in Federal Court (January 15, 2018). Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3102522 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3102522

Andrew Hammond (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
224
rank
132,695
Abstract Views
1,187
PlumX Metrics