Hearing in Pittsburgh debates need for 'civil Gideon'

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Last year, Sonya Butts Rainey, 46, of McKeesport was on the verge of being evicted from her apartment and losing custody of her grandson, when she ended up in the hospital with breathing problems. A hospital social worker referred her to an attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services Association, who came to Ms. Rainey's aid.

The social worker and the legal association were working together as part of the Medical Legal Collaborative for Patients.

The attorney put a stop to the eviction proceedings, which turned out to be illegal, and less than a year later, Ms. Rainey is about to move into her own house and soon will be regaining custody of her grandson.

She said if she had not received the legal help, "I would probably be out on the streets."

Ms. Rainey spoke Tuesday at the third of three statewide hearings by the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing. The hearings, chaired by state Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and part of an initiative by the Civil Legal Justice Coalition, sought to examine whether low-income people in Pennsylvania have adequate access to civil legal representation.

The first hearing was held on May 7 in Harrisburg and the second hearing was held on May 23 in Philadelphia.

Under the well-known 1963 Gideon ruling, indigent defendants in criminal cases are entitled to legal representation, even if they can't afford it. But no such legal requirement exists in civil cases, such as foreclosure proceedings and child custody cases.

A growing national movement is seeking a so-called "civil Gideon" provision, which seeks ways to provide low-income people in civil proceedings with legal representation at public expense. Cases dealing with issues of basic human need, including shelter and child custody, would be among those that would qualify.

Shirl Q. Regan, president and CEO of the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, said victims of domestic violence also are in desperate need of legal representation when they are in the process of leaving an abusive environment.

President Judge Gary Caruso of the Westmoreland County Common Pleas Family Division testified Tuesday that foreclosure cases were of particular concern to him, since most people facing foreclosure try to represent themselves in court.

"People in these situations can't afford legal counsel, or they wouldn't be in foreclosure," Mr. Caruso said. "It's difficult to comprehend the process and how it works without legal counsel." He added that judges are limited in what they can do to help defendants, and that legal representation similar to the kind Ms. Rainey received from Neighborhood Legal Services, is sorely lacking.

But funding for legal assistance and other social service agencies has been greatly reduced in recent years.

Michelle DeBord, managing attorney for the nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services Association, said in the past three years, the organization has lost 22.5 percent of its budget. The association currently operates in four counties: Allegheny, Butler, Beaver and Lawrence, but will be shuttering its Butler office at the end of 2013, and may have to close its Lawrence office next, Ms. DeBord said.

Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University school of Law, said he was proud of its center for clinical legal services, which gives law students training by working on pro bono cases, but that it was only able to meet a small part of the services needed.

"Initiatives like our clinic can only put a small dent in the problem," Mr. Gormley said.

At the close of Tuesday's hearing, the Civil Legal Justice Coalition presented a list of recommendations to the committee, including quantifying the need for funding and establishing an "access to justice commission," which 30 other states have.

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly

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