California Creates New Program to Provide State-Paid Lawyers in Certain Civil Cases

Forty-six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, a case which first provided the right to counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases.  In the spirit of that landmark case, Gov. Schwarzenegger recently signed AB 590, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, which for the first time will provide a lawyer to people who cannot afford one in civil cases related to basic human needs.

The bill creates a six-year pilot project to provide free legal assistance for the poor in certain civil matters. Cases may include matters involving custody disputes, elder abuse, domestic violence and civil harassment restraining orders, housing-related matters, probate conservatorships, and guardianships. The bill also gives priority for funding to providing legal assistance to parents embroiled in civil child custody disputes.

The bill was named after Sargent Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s father-in-law, who helped build the nation’s legal services programs in the 1960s and was the founder of the Peace Corps.

The bill was authored by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, who experienced the difficulty of meeting the legal needs of the poor while serving as executive director of Bet Tzedek legal services in Los Angeles. Speaking about the bill, Feuer said:

I think this legislation is exceptionally important … If you steal a box of Twinkies from a 7-11 and you’re arrested, you’re entitled to a lawyer. If your house is about to be taken away or you’re in a custody dispute over your child or in a domestic violence dispute, you’re not entitled to a lawyer. There’s something very wrong with that. It’s completely antithetical to who we are as a nation.

Of course, even the most compelling existing programs have been getting the ax during these difficult economic times. That’s why it may make sense that the $11 million-a-year program is actually fully self-supporting through existing court fees.

This is a monumental piece of legislation, and it could lead to a dramatic shift in the legal system.  Currently, more than 4.3 million Californians are believed to be unrepresented in court proceedings each year, primarily because they can’t afford an attorney. Legal aide operations are extremely under-funded, with current funding allowing legal services programs to assist less than one-third of California’s poor and lower income residents. As a result, many individuals are left to represent themselves when it comes to fundamental issues of human rights which in spirit and effect might as well carry the same consequence of a criminal conviction.

What’s more, providing attorneys to the poor in civil cases also makes economic sense. People who try to represent themselves overburden the courts, increasing costs and taking up valuable court time. With economic downturns actually increasing the number of civil cases such as divorce and custody battles, there is an even greater need to create efficiencies in the court system.  Thus, this bill has a good chance of both helping to service the interests of justice and saving money and unburdening the courts at the same time.

AB 590 takes effect in 2011.