An interesting idea. According to the SF Chronicle, the City Council will soon be considering a “right to counsel.” The article starts this way:
San Francisco would offer eligible low-income litigants involved in custody battles, tenant-landlord disputes and other civil cases access to free legal counsel — a constitutional right now reserved for criminal defendants — under legislation that three supervisors will formally introduce today.
If the idea is approved by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco would be the first city in the nation to become a “Right to Civil Counsel City.”
The debate over whether to establish a right to civil counsel already has been under way in several states.
The San Francisco proposal calls for for creating a one-year experiment in which private-sector attorneys would volunteer their time to represent clients in civil proceedings. The city’s involvement initially would be limited to funding one employee to serve as project coordinator.
Sure sounds like Civil Gideon — but then it turns out to be something much more practicable and potentially realistic.
The onus would be on the court to determine, on a case by case basis, whether pro bono legal services are warranted. Those involved in crafting the program still must set up a system to determine which cases would be eligible and get priority.
Not everyone who needs representation, or who could benefit from it, would be assigned an attorney. At least not at the beginning.
The proposal, if approved, would not enact a right to counsel in civil proceedings right away. “But rather it is a codification of the beginning of a firm commitment to this eventual goal,” said Supervisor David Chiu, chief sponsor of the proposed ordinance. Supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener signed on as co-sponsors.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the Bar Association of San Francisco support the concept and will work to line up pro bono attorneys to participate.
In other words, people would be screened by the court for the urgency of representation needs, the newly funded staffer would coordinate the program, and the bar would help find free lawyers. Now, SF has one of the very best resourced access to justice systems in the country, so the idea of sufficient services being provided through re-organization of those resources is not crazy. And it would be a wonderful opportunity to test a court-based system of diagnostic triage. See my prior proposal.