By: Maria Hibbard
Access to justice for non-criminal cases may just be a little easier in the western U.S.; with the adoption of a new ordinance, San Francisco has become the first city in the U.S. to implement a program advocating for right to counsel in civil–not just criminal–cases. In 1963, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court declared that indignant defendants have the right to pro bono counsel in criminal cases, but no such right exists in civil cases even when basic human needs are at stake, like shelter or child custody.
“Civil Gideon” is a movement by various bar associations and groups across the country to support the right to counsel in civil cases–in addition to the support already provided by civil legal aid groups. Because civil legal aid groups have traditionally struggled with funding and are able to help only a fraction of people in need, civil Gideon programs could be a way to more equitably serve the needs of poor people.
The San Francisco program is a one-year pilot program that will become permanent if successful. Although the city recognizes that there will not be an immediate right to counsel just because San Francisco is a “Right to Counsel City,” the ordinance states that it is the first step “to progress steadily toward the goal of providing counsel whenever the court, in its discretion, believes that such counsel would assist in the fair administration of justice.” This is the first “Civil Gideon” program supported by city government–other pilot programs in recent years have been run by bar associations or special commissions, like the Philadelphia Bar’s Civil Gideon Task Force. Although these programs are still small and proceeding with caution, it will be interesting to see if San Francisco’s program, backed by the city, will be able to provide realistic access to counsel for those in need on a larger scope. Although it will require more administrative support and legal staff work, John Pollock of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel says that the program may end up being more cost-efficient than not providing access to representation: “By not providing counsel, cities and states end up paying the costs down the road in extended foster care or more police enforcement or homeless shelters. The San Francisco ordinance is very innovative and noteworthy. It’s a milestone.”