Making justice free to all in San Francisco 

click to enlarge A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling provides free representation in criminal cases, but not in civil cases.
  • A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling provides free representation in criminal cases, but not in civil cases.

Supervisor David Chiu is hoping to build on a statewide pilot program offering impoverished civil court litigants access to attorneys.

Chiu has cited statistics showing a great majority of poor people go unrepresented in civil litigation, putting them at greater risk of losing custody of a child or being unfairly evicted.

“Given the life-changing consequences of civil proceedings like child-custody cases, it makes sense to move toward a system that will be more just for low-income San Franciscans,” Chiu said in a statement.

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 to civil cases.

A Board of Supervisors committee will consider Chiu’s “right to counsel” legislation at a hearing  Thursday. The ordinance would enshrine The City’s support for a model offering pro bono legal counsel to those who can’t afford it in cases such as child custody, divorce and eviction.

A 2009 California law set the ball rolling, and state court officials later allocated $9.5 million for pilot programs in six counties, including $350,000 for San Francisco. Added court fees were used to pay for the programs.

If San Francisco approves its version, it would be the first city in the nation to do so, according to Chiu’s office, though exactly in which civil cases and at what income levels the program would be used is still uncertain. The City would coordinate with the San Francisco Bar Association and the private legal community in a one-year pilot program.

One staff position, at an estimated $100,000 salary, would be created to run the program, according to Chiu’s office.

Many are going into court alone

Supervisor David Chiu says San Franciscans who can’t afford a lawyer are at a disadvantage in civil actions such as divorces, evictions and other cases.

92 Percentage of 2009 divorce cases in which one or both people lacked a lawyer

95 Percentage of 2009 child-support cases filed by people who lacked a lawyer

Source: Supervisor David Chiu

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