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Legal plight of the poor is focus of Pa. Senate hearing

A Philadelphia family of five lived without a working toilet for a month after the landlord refused to fix it.

A Philadelphia family of five lived without a working toilet for a month after the landlord refused to fix it.

When the family withheld the rent - which is legal - the landlord locked them out.

Because they didn't have an attorney, the family was never able to get back into the apartment.

That was one of dozens of stories conveyed at a Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing at the Philadelphia Bar Association in Center City on Thursday on the importance of civil legal help for the poor.

Among those testifying was Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who said, "The unfortunate (and often tragic) fact is that many Pennsylvanians face formidable legal situations in our civil courts where... [low-income] citizens may face dire consequences as the result of a city legal matter that can greatly impact their lives or their futures."

Many people are compelled to fend for themselves in courtrooms without attorneys simply because they can't afford representation, Castille added.

Just one in five low-income Pennsylvanians experiencing a critical civil legal problem is likely to get help from any source, Castille said.

Others testified on cases in which low-income people needed food, shelter, and other basic needs but could not find relief without a lawyer.

Unmet need for civil legal assistance costs taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, poverty, and other difficulties, according to the Bar Association.

The legislature is exploring what can be done to help the poor in civil cases as in criminal cases, when low-income defendants are guaranteed court-appointed attorneys.

In particular, Philadelphia's Community Legal Services was praised for work done to help those in need, including the homeless, who have gotten benefits, basic identification documents, and housing with CLS help, according to Sister Mary Scullion, who submitted testimony on behalf of Project HOME, the nonprofit she heads to help the homeless.

"Community Legal Services. . . is the single most important legal organization in preventing homelessness," she said.