Law school initiative pursues civil right to counsel

(February 25, 2010) Attorneys committed to ensuring that low-income people receive crucial legal services in civil matters gathered at Seattle University School of Law last month to collaborate and brainstorm ways to provide equal access to counsel.

The in-depth symposium, Civil Legal Representation and Access to Justice: Breaking Point or Opportunity for Change, drew an overflow crowd to hear some of the most experienced and committed lawyers, academics and lawmakers. The next day, a diverse group convened to take steps toward establishing a civil right to counsel in Washington.

The conference, a project of the Fred T. Korematsu Center on Law and Equality at the School of Law, was co-sponsored by Washington's three law schools. It grew out of the commitment of clinical professors Lisa Brodoff and Raven Lidman from the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic and their work with the Committee for Indigent Representation and Civil Legal Equality (CIRCLE) at the Northwest Justice Project.

"This was about learning and doing,"said Lisa Brodoff, who is now director of the Peterson clinic. "We don't want to just talk about these issues, but really come up with answers and a plan to make civil Gideon a reality."

The work group, comprised of representatives from CIRCLE, the Korematsu initiative and others, reached consensus of core principles, such as that access to justice is a fundamental right, and that representation should be guaranteed when needed to secure a fair determination by a Washington tribunal. They concluded that counsel is particularly important in cases involving access to housing or sustenance, or issues related to personal safety, health or the wellbeing of children.

Their conversation came after a day packed with distinguished speakers highlighting the problems.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen gave the keynote address, noting that there is no doubt that people who don't have access to counsel are at a disadvantage. While someone facing even a minor charge is entitled to counsel, others facing much more catastrophic consequences such as the loss of a home or their children, most often go without legal help.

"We know that outcomes are affected when litigants are unrepresented,"she said. Justice Madsen, who served as a public defender and a Seattle Municipal Court Judge, recalled that she was honored to sit beneath the large letters in the courtroom declaring "Equal Justice under the Law."

"There were days it seemed to me that statement must be false advertising,"she said.

As a public defender, she found many of clients' problems extended far beyond a criminal charge and well beyond her reach. They were victims of domestic violence, facing eviction or needing other services they had no idea how to access.

As the state's 2003 Civil Legal Needs Study showed 87 percent of low-income households had a civil legal problem, but only 12 percent of those were represented by counsel.

"Nine out of ten received no help at all,"Justice Madsen said.

Legal aid agencies such as the Northwest Justice Project and Columbia Legal Services, as well as pro bono counsel, and students and professors from law school legal clinics work hard to fill the void. But the need is far greater.

"Here in Washington, we have demonstrated a strong commitment to civil legal representation and access to justice,"Madsen said.

But, as she noted, volunteer efforts aren't enough, and funding such services is at the crux of the problem.

"You have brought together some of the best minds on the subject,"she told the audience. "If anyone can provide some answers, you can."

"We intend to prove her right,"said Brodoff, who will be working with others to formulate specific objectives and a proposal to circulate to stakeholders.

Much of the program planning was done by Seattle University School of Law graduates Sabrina Andrus '08, Project Coordinator for NJP's Committee for Indigent Representation and Civil Legal Equality, and Erin Shea McCann '07, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Columbia Legal Services working on securing better legal representation for children involved in abuse and neglect proceedings.

Sullivan Hall