Monte Frank
Monte Frank ()

Many individuals try to represent themselves in divorces, eviction proceedings and other civil matters because they can’t afford to hire an attorney. The influx of self-represented parties has put a strain on Connecticut’s court system and has raised questions about whether justice is being done when one party in a dispute has a lawyer and the other one does not.

Now Connecticut is joining a number of other states in considering whether low-income parties should be provided with attorneys in certain types of civil cases, just as defendants in criminal cases are guaranteed representation because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Legislation approved by the General Assembly has created a “Civil Gideon” task force which will look at how Connecticut might increase legal representation in civil proceedings. By Dec. 15, the task force will make recommendations to the legislature.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who proposed the task force, said he expects the first meetings to be held this summer.

“There are an increasing number of circumstances where the absence of representation has been detrimental to people, such as when they are applying for a protective order or restraining order in a domestic violence situation,” Looney said. “We hear constantly from the court system how many marital dissolution cases have at least one party who is pro se. It is a real challenge, because it is important for people’s rights to be protected.”

The task force will have about 35 members, including representatives from the offices of the Attorney General, Chief Public Defender and Chief State’s Attorney. Also on the panel will be private practice attorneys and representatives from human services agencies and law schools.

“We want this task force to find ways to reduce instances where people are unable to secure representation when they need it,” Looney added. “The task force will give us specific goals and options we should consider.”

Attorney General George Jepsen said his office looks forward to participating in this important discussion ‎about ensuring access to the civil justice system. “Particularly at a time when judicial resources are deeply strained, we need to ensure that our neediest residents have recourse to our courts,” Jepsen said.

Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who urged lawmakers to create the task force, said many questions need to be considered. The task force will have to determine the cost of providing attorneys in civil cases, identify possible funding sources, determine how such a program would be structured, and decide what types of cases would be included, according to Rogers.

She said there are people in civil and family courts every day who can’t afford an attorney. “The task force will need to determine which types of civil cases are so significant that representation should be required,” Rogers said in written testimony provided to lawmakers. “Is there less at stake if litigants are the victims of domestic violence or risk losing their home?”

For civil cases overall in Connecticut, 25 percent have at least one party who is self-represented. For family matters, that percentage jumps to 85 percent. For housing matters, it is at 75 percent, according to the Judicial Branch.

While many in the state’s legal community have provided pro bono services, the “demand outweighs the supply,” according to Rogers.

The Connecticut Bar Association will be represented on the new task force. Both current CBA President William Clendenen Jr. and incoming President Monte Frank say helping the poor get needed legal assistance in civil proceedings is a CBA priority.

Clendenen, who will be on the task force, has asserted that a Civil Gideon program can be cost-effective. He offered this example: If the state provides legal assistance to someone fighting eviction, taxpayers might not have to spend money in the long run to provide social services for a homeless person.

Frank also expects to be on the task force. “We hope the task force will take a comprehensive look at the lack of real access to justice for a substantial segment of the population in Connecticut and make meaningful recommendations to the General Assembly to remedy the crisis,” Frank said.

Timothy Fisher, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, will also be on the task force.

“We have learned what personal harms are suffered unnecessarily when people are not able to explain their situations sufficiently to get the rights to which they are entitled,” Fisher said. “But the harm goes far beyond that. Society suffers, and the state suffers financially, when our citizens are not able to work and live to their potentials because they are taken advantage of, or because of simple institutional error.”

According to Fisher, the goal of a Civil Gideon program is to help those in need be better employed, to be taxpayers, and to be consumers, “reducing rather than increasing the burdens on our state’s health, education, and justice systems.”

“There is a tremendous gap between people’s need for good legal information and help in defending their rights and the help and information available to them,” Fisher said. “We will explore the many ways to close this gap.” •