Saturday, March 16, 2013

Why Civil Representation Matters

For the most part, this blog covers criminal and correctional matters. But this New York Times story makes me think that the distinction between criminal and civil law isn't all that clear-cut.

As it turns out, the economic downturn has worsened a situation in which poor people don't have access to lawyers and have to represent themselves in matters such as home foreclosures, child custody, job loss and spousal abuse. Without the knowledge and connections that an attorney can provide, and unshielded from the power of the law, the quality of justice poor people receive is reduced. The article reports:

The Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally financed organization that provides lawyers to the poor in civil matters, says there are more than 60 million Americans — 35 percent more than in 2005 — who qualify for its services. But it calculates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. In state after state, according to a survey of trial judges, more people are now representing themselves in court and they are failing to present necessary evidence, committing procedural errors and poorly examining witnesses, all while new lawyers remain unemployed. 

. . . 

According to the World Justice Project, a nonprofit group promoting the rule of law that got its start through the American Bar Association, the United States ranks 66th out of 98 countries in access to and affordability of civil legal services.

In April, thanks to a city ordinance championed by civil rights lawyer Robert Rubin and big firm partners James Donato and James Brosnahan, San Francisco became the first city to offer a "civil Gideon" pilot program, guaranteeing representation to the indigent in civil matters as well.  A 2009 California law funneling funds to legal aid groups to provide representation was bitterly contested, as was the San Francisco ordinance.

Why does all this matter? Because formerly incarcerated people rebuilding their lives on the outside may find that their brushes with the law happen outside the criminal realm, as well. Having to deal with the side effects of poverty and discrimination against felons (jobs and housing) and with the disintegration of family so commonly associated with incarceration, one might find oneself in dire need of an attorney, finding that outside of criminal matters, representation is difficult. "Civil Gideon" projects are, therefore, as important to reentering folks as criminal representation - perhaps more so.

But high caseloads, both civil and criminal, mean that even laws guaranteeing representation may find it difficult to offer quality representation. This is what I've referred to elsewhere as "the dark side of Gideon."More funding means better representation, and this is one area in which humonetarianism will not be of much help.

Finally, apropos Gideon, this flick has just been released and should be worth seeing when it comes to California. Here's a Democracy Now segment devoted to the film:

Robert Rubin, whose main area of litigation in the last ten years is voting rights, will be speaking at our conference on Friday about felon disenfranchisement and barriers to reentry.

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