Observer: Civil Discourse: Lawmakers and Legal Experts Want to Expand Your Right to a Lawyer

By Jillian Jorgensen

August 20, 2015

“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you.”

That right—enshrined in many minds thanks to repeat viewings of cop shows—comes with an asterisk: it applies only to criminal cases. But a growing coalition of lawyers, legislators and judges hope to expand the rights set out in the 1963’s landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright to apply to civil cases—seeking a so-called Civil Gideon.

“I think anyone facing a life-altering judgment—whether it’s incarceration, eviction, deportation, loss of custody of your children, foreclosure on a mortgage you have—anyone facing those kinds of judgements should have representation, in my opinion,” City Councilman Mark Levine told the Observer.

As a start, Mr. Levine has proposed legislation guaranteeing a right to a lawyer for low-income tenants facing eviction and homeowners facing foreclosure in housing court. It’s one of the incremental steps municipalities nationwide are looking to take in the absence of a full-fledged nationwide right to counsel—not for slip-and-fall tort lawsuits, advocates note, but for legal matters where “basic human needs” (housing, health, safety, sustenance and child custody) are at stake.And it would be a very big step.

“It would make it the first jurisdiction, city or state, to provide a right to counsel in a housing matter,” John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, said. “It’s impossible to overstate how incredible an achievement that would be.”

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