Written by attorney John Ely Stobart

Meaningful Access for Pro Per Prisoner Litigants - Civil Death Explained


In perhaps the first case to address an inmate's right to access the courts in the State of California, the Supreme Court held that no compelling state interest supported denial of a prisoner's access to the courts and that the unqualified deprivation in defendant's case constituted a violation of his rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of both the State and Federal Constitutions. (Payne v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 908.) In that case, the Court addressed the following dilemma: “An indigent prisoner may be sued civilly by anyone in this state, but is unable to defend against that suit." (Id. at 911.) The Court, in a limited holding, found “that when a prisoner is threatened with a judicially sanctioned deprivation of his property, due process and equal protection require a meaningful opportunity to be heard." (Id. at 927.)

Payne was “reaffirmed" in 1985 when the Supreme Court held, “In an appropriate case, and as a last alternative, appointment of counsel may be the only way to provide an incarcerated, indigent civil defendant with access to the courts for the protection of threatened personal and property rights." (Yarbrough v. Superior Court (1985) 39 Cal.3d 197, 200-201.)

The right to “meaningful access" to the courts was extended to an indigent inmate plaintiff litigating on a pro per basis in Wantuch v. Davis (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 786. "A prisoner may not be deprived, by his or her inmate status, of meaningful access to the civil courts if the prisoner is both indigent and a party to a bona fide civil action threatening his or her personal or property interests. (Italics added.)" (Id at p. 792.) The Court also set forth several factors to be considered when determining how to allow a prisoner “meaningful access" to the Court. (Id.)

A prisoner in a bona fide civil action has the statutory right of meaningful access to the courts to prosecute his claim. (Bounds v. Smith (1977) 97 S.Ct. 1491.) However, meaningful access to the courts “does not necessarily mandate a particular remedy" to secure access. (Payne v. Superior Court(1976) 17 Cal.3d 908.) In Wantuch v. Davis (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 786, the Court suggested the following remedies to ensure that inmates are allowed access to the Courts may include:

  1. deferral of the action until the prisoner is released;
  2. appointment of counsel for the prisoner;
  3. transfer of the prisoner to court;
  4. utilization of depositions in lieu of personal appearances;
  5. holding of trial in prison;
  6. conduct of status and settlement conferences, hearings on motions and other pretrial proceedings by telephone;
  7. propounding of written discovery;
  8. use of closed circuit television or other modern electronic media; and
  9. implementation of other innovative, imaginative procedures.

The forgoing suggestions are not mandatory. "A prisoner does not have the right to any particular remedy." (Wantuch v. Davis (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 786, 793.) It is within the sound discretion of the Trial Court to determine the appropriate remedy to secure the prisoner's access to the courts. (Yarbrough v. Superior Court (1985) 39 Cal.3d 197, 207; Payne v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 908, 927.)

“Generally, a trial court has discretion to choose among these and other remedies in safeguarding a prisoner litigant's right of meaningful access to the courts to prosecute or defend against a civil action threatening his or her interests." (Apollo v. Gyaami (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1468, 1483-1484; citing Yarbough and Wantuch.) “However, a trial court does not have discretion to choose no remedy in cases where the prisoner's civil action is bona fide and his or her access to the courts is being impeded." (Id.)


Penal Code §2600, once known as a “civil death" statute, use to suspend all civil liberties of a prisoner except a few specifically enumerated rights and those authorized by the Adult Authority or the sentencing judge. (Payne v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 908, 912-913.) However, Penal Code §2600 was amended to read as follows: “A person sentenced to imprisonment in a state prison may during that period of confinement be deprived of such rights, and only such rights, as is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests."

Thus, the term “civil death" actually refers to limiting a prisoner's civil rights when no legitimate penal objective is served. (In re Harrell (1970) 2 Cal.3d 675.)

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