Ideas and programs to increase access to justice for the indigent have been gaining traction in Pennsylvania, two state Supreme Court justices said over the past several weeks in public forums and interviews with The Legal.
Recent and ongoing initiatives of the bench and bar are demonstrating “civil Gideon”—the umbrella term that speaks to the right of representation regardless of ability to pay—in action, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Max Baer said.
Castille pointed to recent mortgage foreclosure initiatives in Philadelphia as a successful example of civil Gideon in action, and Baer touted the use of large firm lawyers in Pittsburgh to offer assistance in domestic-abuse cases.
Discussion of civil Gideon perked up in October with two separate forums at which judges and legal professionals discussed the importance of legal aid.
The state’s largest bar associations have championed the issue and, in written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the top lawyer for the Corbett administration backed a $1 filing fee increase partly to bolster legal services to the poor.
Baer and Pennsylvania Bar Association President Forest N. Myers headlined the Judiciary Committee’s witness list Oct. 29, and several attorneys and representatives of legal service groups also weighed in.
Eight days prior, a discussion was held at a Legal Services Corp. board meeting in which Castille met with court leaders from Maryland and West Virginia to talk about meeting the needs of the indigent in civil legal matters.
Castille told The Legal that the current need for civil legal services for the indigent is dire, especially in family court cases where roughly 90 percent of litigants represent themselves. This, Castille said, is not only bad for the pro se parties, but disrupts the court system as well.
“We should start looking at the provisions for these legal services in the same way that we look at providing for other governmental services like the police department and criminal defense,” Castille said. “It ought to be a priority item because of the services it provides and the impact it has on the citizens.”
The statewide push to bring widespread civil Gideon initiatives to Pennsylvania is being championed by the Philadelphia, Allegheny County and Pennsylvania bar associations, and has garnered support from judges, attorneys, academics and legal professionals from across the state.
Castille said a successful civil Gideon program has already been implemented in Philadelphia.
“The mortgage foreclosure program they had in Philadelphia was replicated in 13 other counties to save people’s homes,” Castille said. “In Philadelphia last year they saved over 4,000 homes from foreclosure. That’s civil Gideon in action because Philadelphia and other lawyers stepped up to the plate and volunteered to help these individuals.”
In an interview with The Legal, Baer said that some of the major points he brought up at the Pittsburgh hearing concerned representation in domestic relations and dependency cases.
“This is one of my primary areas of interest,” Baer said. “Effective, tenacious advocacy on behalf of fathers and paternal families, as well as extended maternal families can do tremendous good for children whose mothers and fathers are unable to take care of the kids.”
Baer said in circumstances where a parent can’t take care of a child, and that child is in danger of entering foster care, “if good lawyers are involved, they can advocate for maternal family or paternal grandparents, cousins, uncles who might be willing to take care of the child, love this child.”
Baer also pointed to an example of civil Gideon in action in terms of domestic-abuse cases.
“In Allegheny County for the past 25 years, there have been lawyers from large firms who come every morning to represent the victims of domestic abuse in court,” Baer said. “When they get there they talk to the victim, they talk to the other side, and work something out. If they can’t work it out, they consult with the judge. Ninety-five percent of the time it gets worked out. In the rare case that it doesn’t work out, it can be tried very quickly.”
In terms of attorney commitment to larger-scale pro bono initiatives such as in Allegheny County, Baer said that a great amount of time wouldn’t be required on behalf of the lawyer.
“We don’t necessarily need lawyers to enter appearance on behalf of these people. You can zip the lawyers in and out. They can come to the courthouse on a weekday for three hours and do 20 or 21 cases for that many people and then leave without any other obligation,” Baer said. “If it’s partial custody cases, those cases aren’t that difficult … they can help out a lot without having to be with a case for seven years at a time.”
The question that still looms over the installation of a government-backed civil Gideon program is that of adequate funding.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said that more substantial sources than those currently used to fund legal aid services may be needed to bring civil Gideon to fruition.
But ultimately, Marks said, it makes economic sense for the state to implement legal service programs. “It’s been well documented that providing civil legal assistance is beneficial for Pennsylvania,” she said.
“This isn’t only an issue in Pennsylvania,” Marks continued. “There’s a movement throughout the country to address these problems. Many other states have access to justice commissions or are establishing them.”
In his written testimony for the Pittsburgh hearing, general counsel of the commonwealth, James D. Schultz, backed increasing the case filing fee by $1, in part to increase the state’s civil legal aid funding.
“Rep. Tarah Toohil [R-Luzerne] has introduced House Bill 1337 which proposes to increase the total filing fee amount placed into the access to justice account to $4,” Schultz said. “I, as well as the governor, fully support House Bill 1337 and hope to see its passage this session. Providing additional funding for legal aid is an essential step in the expansion of services to those in need.”