Pennsylvania leaders explore provision for ‘civil Gideon’

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If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Law and Order,” you’re familiar with the phrase, “You have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided.” Police officers read that to suspects being arrested.

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 national movement is pressing for 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, such as child custody and shelter, would be among those that would qualify.

A statewide coalition of leaders from the Allegheny County, Dauphin County, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania bar associations, as well as other related groups, held public hearings on the idea of expanding the Gideon ruling to civil cases. It is recommending the Pennsylvania Supreme Court establish an Access to Justice Commission, similar to those in 32 other states, which would further explore how to implement such a measure.

“The cutbacks in funding to legal aid programs has the potential to harm individuals who need legal help,” said James Creenan, president-elect of the Allegheny County Bar Association. Mr. Creenan is also one of the co-chairs of the Civil Legal Justice Coalition, which made its recommendations to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

At a hearing in Pittsburgh in October, the coalition heard from various groups in support of civil legal protections, including the nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services Association. In the past three years, that organization lost 22.5 percent of its budget due to state funding cutbacks. The association closed its Butler office at the end of last year, and now operates only in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

In addition to establishing a commission, the report recommends the Pennsylvania Legislature appropriate $50 million for civil legal services and work toward establishing a right to counsel in civil legal matters where “fundamental human needs are at stake.”

Kim Lyons: or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly.

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