California Bar Journal
CBJ - November 2009 #03.
Right to counsel in civil cases gets a boost from the governor
California Bar JournalNovember 2009Right to counsel in civil cases gets a boost from the governorGovernor Schwarzenegger has signed into law the nation's first "Civil Gideon" statute, which provides a lawyer to people who cannot afford one in civil cases related to critical basic human needs.
The pilot project, AB590 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, expands to some civil cases the right to counsel that is already granted in criminal cases, as spelled out in the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright. The law, which creates a six-year pilot project that takes effect July 2011 and is paid for with court fees, is called the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, after Schwarzenegger's father-in-law, who helped build the nation's legal services programs in the 1960s.
"I think this legislation is exceptionally important," said Feuer, who had firsthand experience with the legal needs of the poor as executive director of Bet Tzedek legal services in Los Angeles. "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."
Feuer emphasized that the legislation is a pilot program and will be limited in scope, but "it's a significant first step ... It's testing the efficacy of a civil Gideon model."
The measure calls for free legal help for the poor "in civil matters involving critical issues affecting basic human needs." Cases may include housing-related matters, domestic violence and civil harassment restraining orders, probate conservatorships, guardianships, elder abuse and actions by a parent to obtain sole legal or physical custody of a child. The law states that proposals to provide counsel in child custody cases should be given high priority for funding because of the high number of unrepresented people in family law matters. Funds for the $11 million-a-year pilot project will come from a $10 allocation of existing court fees.
The new law "is a major advancement in the effort to achieve equal justice for...