On the anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision that recognized the right to an attorney in criminal cases, a bill waiting for the governor’s signature could provide free legal assistance in the civil arena to those who cannot afford it.
Under the limited pilot program, approved by lawmakers in House Bill 3111, legal help would be provided in landlord-tenant disputes to those who fall at or below the federal poverty level.
While the finer details have yet to be ironed out, if Gov. Pat Quinn signs the bill, it would be a rare step in providing free legal representation in civil courtrooms.
“For the most part, you’re not facing incarceration in civil courts,” McHenry County Chief Judge Michael Sullivan said. “… But that doesn’t mean that the issue’s impact on your life and your family’s lives … are not as important to your well-being or your family’s well-being.”
Sullivan is part of the state’s 11-member Access to Justice Commission, which is looking to make it easier to navigate the state’s legal system, especially for those who are indigent or vulnerable.
The measure comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision which recognized that criminal defendants have the right to an attorney when they are unable to afford one. Known in legal circles simply as Gideon, the same right does not extend to civil cases.
Though the program outlined in HB3111 is limited – only one courthouse in each Appellate Court district would have a pilot program, and only in landlord-tenant cases – the executive director of the Access to Justice Commission said the measure would be a step in the right direction.
“We kind of take as a given that you don’t have a right to a lawyer in noncriminal cases,” Danielle Hirsch said. “[This is] a way to test what it would be like if you did have a meaningful lawyer on both sides. How would it change the process?”
But law experts say a full-blown civil Gideon is far off, and even more rare.
“The broad-based right to an attorney in civil matters if you’re impoverished, paid for at state’s expense, is highly impossible to imagine,” said Marc Falkoff, associate professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law.
Although he applauded the effort, he called the state’s courts “woefully underfunded.”
“It sounds great, but if we can’t keep up in the criminal context, I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” Falkoff said.
An additional $10 filing fee will be tacked onto civil court cases, pooled into an Access to Justice fund, then funneled back to pay for the pilot program.
Moving forward, a line would need to be drawn in the sand, Falkoff predicted.
“I don’t want to pay for someone’s divorce attorney, and I can’t imagine we’ll ever be able to do that,” he said.
HB3111 also creates a legal assistance hotline for veterans. But these are only part of the Access to Justice Commission’s overarching goal.
“It’s really a multifaceted approach,” Sullivan said. It’s “trying to make sure everyone has access to justice – no matter what your educational background, financial abilities, or your abilities to communicate language.”