Despite concerns about the impact on The City’s budget, on Tuesday San Francisco became first city in the United States to grant its citizens a right to civil counsel.
While defendants in criminal cases are entitled to counsel if they cannot afford one, the same right does not apply to civil cases, leaving many people involved in domestic violence, child custody and eviction cases without legal representation.
But Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced legislation that was approved Tuesday in a 9-2 vote creating a one-year pilot program granting a right to civil counsel.
“We will stand up for the right of civil counsel and for the principal that we state in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are ‘a country with liberty and justice for all,’” Chiu said.
Supervisors Carmen Chu and Sean Elsbernd opposed the legislation, citing concerns about increasing government spending at a time when the city faces a large budget deficit and the staffs of the public defender and district attorney are already stretched thin.
The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Gideon v. Wainwright mandated that state courts provide attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own. In recent years, there has been a movement nationally to expand that right to civil cases.
The program is expected to begin in the upcoming fiscal year. The cost would be limited to $100,000 for a new staff person to coordinate it. The legal services themselves would be performed on a pro bono basis by volunteer attorneys from the private legal community.
But the pilot program paves the way for a more permanent regime with additional costs, which was the concern of the critics.
The details of the actual pilot will require approval by the board. The plan is to launch it during the fiscal year beginning July 1.