Annie Prossnitz

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In early modern England, litigants could petition for in forma pauperis status in order to seek free legal services, including representation. Scholars have often invoked this history to bolster the claim for a reinforced in forma pauperis right today. This Note explores the origins of the right to in forma pauperis status from a different angle. At the core of this Note is an examination of ninety-two primary-source in forma pauperis petitions and court documents, filed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English courts of equity, namely Chancery, the Court of Requests, Star Chamber, and Exchequer. Rather than the mythical, rarely used, and limited right that scholars have portrayed it to be, these documents reveal the accessibility, comprehensiveness, and uniformity of in forma pauperis procedure in English courts of equity. By digging into the minutiae of these petitions, the wide-ranging identities of the litigants and their claims, the extent of free services the court was willing to provide, and the standards judges used to grant and deny these requests come to light in a way that secondhand sources and later cases cannot reveal. This Note argues that understanding legal procedure should begin with a bottom-up approach from the court documents themselves. In doing so, it offers a method of reconceptualizing the origins of the in forma pauperis right and a claim for an improved and consistent procedure today.

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