Thursday, March 5, 2009
Assembly Bill Proposes Right to Counsel in Civil Cases
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, yesterday proposed legislative amendments to create a right to appointed counsel for low-income people in civil cases.
If passed, Assembly Bill 590 would make California the first state in the nation to provide such a service, a Feuer spokesperson said.
Court-appointed attorneys for indigent parties are currently only provided in criminal cases. The proposed legislation would require the Judicial Council to develop model pilot programs—funded by a $10 increase on certain post-judgment court fees—to provide counsel for low-income persons who require legal services in civil matters involving “basic human needs.”
The preamble to the bill asserts that existing programs providing free services in civil matters to indigent and disadvantaged persons, especially the elderly, the disabled, children, and non-English-speaking persons are not adequate to meet existing needs. There was only one legal aid attorney for every 8,373 poor people in California in 2006, according to federal poverty data cited by Feuer.
Legal Aid Association of California Executive Director Julia Wilson opined that “legal aid programs are not adequately funded, and without advice and assistance many laws are not enforced and poor people lose their legal rights simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.”
Feuer also expressed concern that with the economic downturn and many Californians at risk of losing their homes, “[n]ow more than ever, we must take steps to ensure that essential legal rights regarding basic human needs—including shelter—are not sacrificed or abandoned simply because someone cannot afford to hire a private lawyer to assist them.”
He also suggested that expanding the availability of counsel would not only improve access to the courts and the quality of justice obtained by these individuals, but allow court calendars that currently include many self-represented litigants to be handled more effectively and efficiently.
A similar proposal to create a right to court-appointed counsel in civil trials was included in the January 2007 budget, but the proposal did not survive the budget process.
Kevin Baker, deputy chief counsel for the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Feuer chairs, said the bill’s prospects are good because, unlike the previous proposal, it does not require funding from the state’s badly depleted general fund and would have a legislative champion.
“We think we can succeed now with the support of the chief justice and the governor,” Baker told the MetNews.
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