Pro Bono News

Suits, Legislation Over a Civil Right to Counsel Grow Across U.S.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Excerpt: Through litigation and legislation, a growing number of private and public interest lawyers across the country are pushing to secure those with low incomes the right to counsel in civil matters, including foreclosures, evictions and child custody cases.

Legal aid groups are under-funded and overworked, they argue, and pro bono services aren't enough to fill the gap for the millions who go unrepresented.

"We can't do it alone," said Kathryn Grant Madigan, immediate past president of the New York State Bar Association, who for the past year has been hitting the radio airwaves with public service announcements calling for a civil right to counsel.

"No one should lose their child because they did not have effective counsel," said Madigan, partner at Levene Gouldin & Thompson in Binghamton, N.Y. "This is a significant social movement, and it has spread indeed all over the country. We've been beating this drum for so long and hard, and we've gotten to the place now where everyone is starting to pay attention."

On the litigation front, attorneys are asking the Ohio Supreme Court to rule that an elderly, low-income couple facing loss of their home through foreclosure has a state constitutional right to counsel at state expense. Hill v. Myers, No. 08-1141.

The Alaska Supreme Court is considering whether the state has to provide an attorney for a mother involved in a custody dispute because the woman is poor and the father has a lawyer. A lower court granted the attorney, but the case was appealed. Gordanier v. Jonsson, No. 3AN-06-8887.

In Washington state, the Supreme Court ruled in December that there is no right to legal representation in divorce cases. The case involved a woman who couldn't afford a lawyer at her divorce trial and lost primary custody of her children. Her husband had an attorney. King v. King, 174 P.3d 659 (Wash. 2007).