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Lat. 'in the form of a pauper.' Someone who is without the funds to pursue the normal costs of a lawsuit or criminal defense. Upon the court's granting of this status the person is entitled to waiver of normal costs and/or appointment of counsel (but seldom in other than a criminal case).
It can also refer to a petition filed by a poor person in order to proceed in court without having to pay court costs such as filing fees. In most civil cases it does not cover other cost such as those involved in discovery (depositions, witness fees, court reporters, etc.) and service of process, except in rare cases. Also, barring exceptional circumstances such as some civil rights suits, it does not cover attorney appointments.
In forma pauperis proceedings are available in every state and on the federal level (except most bankruptcies). A person with a low income (usually eligible for or receiving public assistance including food stamps) fills out in forma pauperis papers (indicating income and expenses) before filing his first court paper (complaint or answer). The papers request that the court decide whether or not the costs be paid. Although a hearing before a judge is sometimes needed, the more usual practice is for the court to grant or deny the request without a hearing.
In many jurisdictions the fact of IFP status is sealed (kept confidential).
In federal court, the grant of IFP in the district court usually carries over to any appeals, thus saving duplication.
The issue of whether fictional entities such as corporations are entitled to IFP status is unsettled in many jurisdictions, as is the items covered by IFP status, especially in a civil action. E.g. depositions, service of papers, witness expenses, etc.
English Law. When a person is so poor that he cannot bear the charges of suing at law or in equity, upon making oath that he is not worth five pounds and bringing a certificate from a counselor at law that he believes him to have a just cause, he is permitted to sue informa pauperis, in the manner of a pauper; that is, he is allowed to have original writs and subpoenas gratis and counsel assigned him without fee.