CT Chief Justice, State Bar President cite importance of civil right to counsel

01/11/2016, Court Rule or Initiative, All Basic Human Needs

At a 2015 meeting of the Connecticut Bar Association, Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers stated that a right to counsel in civil cases is an issue "we need to confront", noting that European nations have had a right to counsel in civil matters for years and calling it critical when such issues as housing, family matters, access to health care, education and subsistence income are being decided.  You can watch the video of Chief Justice Roger's comments on civil right to counsel (starting at 14:10).  Here is the full text of her right to counsel remarks:


25% of litigants in civil matters (and 85% in family matters) are representing themselves … Is there less at stake if someone faces jail over child support payments? Is there less at stake if litigants face domestic violence or risk losing their home? The civil gideon question of whether litigants in certain types of non-criminal matters should have court-appointed attorneys paid for by the state is an issue that we now need to confront.


I’m well aware that Connecticut’s superb legal services community has assisted many individuals. However, the demand far outweighs the supply … For this reason, I’m asking the judicial branch’s Access to Justice Commission to research the civil gideon question and to make recommendations for consideration.


Let me assure you: I understand the complexity and enormity of this issue, along with the questions it raises, such as "how much will it cost", "is it even financially feasible", "are there alternative funding sources", "how can it be structured", "what kind of cases are we talking about", and finally, "can the other branches of government be persuaded of the merits of such a program” (I happen to be looking at the Judiciary Chair at this moment).


I join a long line of others who have recognized the problem; in fact, Bill Clendenen, the incoming [CT Bar] President, has been a long-time proponent of civil gideon … he has noted in the past that all member countries in the European Union have had a right to counsel in civil cases for many years. We’ve also been keeping a close eye on what’s been happening around the country regarding this issue and I’m somewhat encouraged by it. Another proponent of civil gideon has been my colleague in New York, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. "Our society", he said in his 2015 State of the Judiciary address , "will and should be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us." Chief Judge Lippman was able to convince the New York Legislature to adopt a joint resolution requesting that the Chief Judge submit a report with recommendations to address gaps in available resources to meet the needs of civil legal services in New York. As a result, he has organized annual public hearings across the state to address the unmet need … he has requested that the New York Legislature adopt a resolution defining what Civil Gideon would mean and who would be eligible to receive civil legal assistance. It reads in part, and I think it’s a good starting point, "The policy of the State of New York is that every New Yorker who lives at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines have effective legal assistance in matters involving the essentials of life: housing, family matters, access to health care, education, and subsistence income.”


Other states have started addressing this issue, and I believe strongly that it’s time for Connecticut to accelerate serious and comprehensive discussions regarding representation for people who cannot afford counsel in certain types of cases. I say this in full recognition of the financial limitations that exist in contemplating civil Gideon, but also in the hope that a dialogue with the bar as a very active participant will lead to further enhancement of access to justice.


The new Connecticut State Bar President, William Clendenen, also has been vocal in his support of a right to counsel in basic human needs civil cases and has called for the state to adopt the ABA Model Access Act, which sets out a plan for implementing such a right.  This week, the editorial board of the Connecticut Law Tribune published an editorial entitled "Conn. Should Ensure Right to Counsel in Civil Cases". It cited international human rights principles and agreed with the call to adopt the Model Access Act as a way "to improve access to justice in our state."

2016 stories in the Hartford Courant and National Courts Monitor have covered Connecticut's interest as well.