Measuring Gideon's Reach: A Right to Counsel in Civil Cases?

The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s January 2010 Young Lawyer newsletter includes a piece on the civil-right-to-counsel (or “civil Gideon”) movement.  John Pollock, the ABA Section of Litigation’s Civil Right to Counsel Fellow, notes that the Gideon’s promise of counsel for criminal defendants has not extended to litigants in civil matters, even when their liberty and welfare hang in the balance:

“…the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel does not reach civil cases, and in 1981 the Supreme Court held in Lassiter v. Dep’t of Social Services that there is a presumption against a due process right to appointed counsel in civil cases except where physical liberty (confinement) is at stake. Under Lassiter, even when confinement is a possibility in a civil case, a court must balance the strength of the litigant’s interest, the risk of error, and the state’s interest to determine whether it should appoint counsel.”

Pollock goes on to write about the work of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, whose supporters “drive the litigation, education, and legislative advocacy efforts around this issue.” 

Civil Gideon proponents had received some good news last October when California was poised to implement a pilot program guaranteeing access to counsel in some civil cases.  The program prompted foes to predict an increase in litigation and other costs, while supporters argued that the opposite would occur as lawyers for the poor would help them to better navigate the justice system and ease the burden on courts.  Read Wall Street Journal coverage of that development in “Civil Gideon Trumpets Legal Discord.”  Additional coverage of the program came from the North County Times of Southern California.

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