Despite their constitutional right to an attorney, poor criminal defendants are often represented by harried public defenders struggling to keep up with huge caseloads. But that's better than their lot in civil disputes, which can involve matters as serious as domestic abuse, child custody, and housing. In those cases, poor Americans often stand at the bar entirely alone.
Without the access to an attorney that criminal defendants were assured by the Supreme Court's historic Gideon v. Wainwright decision 50 years ago, indigent civil litigants have to turn to legal-aid agencies. Those groups are often unable to keep pace with costs due to flat or declining public funding in recent decades. So it's fortunate that the Gideon anniversary has drawn renewed attention in the legal community to what's known as the "civil justice gap."
Advocates have been pushing for more than two years to generate another $8 million for Legal Services of New Jersey by raising court filing fees. The organization estimates that only one in six of the state's poor is able to obtain civil representation.
Now the Pennsylvania Senate's Judiciary Committee, chaired by State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), has taken up the issue, convening a series of hearings across the state. The second was held last week at the Philadelphia Bar Association's headquarters, with a third planned in Pittsburgh. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille was among those who testified last week, voicing concern that thousands of low-income litigants are forced to represent themselves and denied justice. Greenleaf, too, said he is troubled by the status quo.
There would be a cost, of course, to bring legal-aid funding up to speed; Castille estimates that it could take as much as $1 billion to assure legal representation in all state civil cases. But as the Bar Association notes, failing to provide legal aid also has a cost. The bar estimates that taxpayers spend millions as a result of homelessness, domestic violence, and other ills caused by inadequate civil representation.
The debate shouldn't be about whether the state should do more to provide poor Pennsylvanians with legal advice, but about how much of the need can be met. Castille suggests that increased aid be made available in cases that involve basic needs, such as health and housing. Greenleaf, meanwhile, is looking at a promising proposal to bump up filing fees to raise funds, echoing the New Jersey proposal.
The senator calls the lack of equal access to legal representation "one of the most critical justice issues we face today." In delivering on our legal system's founding principle of justice for all, it does indeed remain a glaring piece of unfinished business.