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Lord help us! — or, rather “California, help us!” [poor litigants MAY get “a better shot at justice”]

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I am entirely without time to spice this up with enough sarcasm, but caveat emptor, I say.  I add a few, short translations for the uninitiated. 

This story was headlines I gather in both Southern & Northern CA newspapers — different headlines, but page A-1, and same story.  Perhaps we should take a close look at it.

The comments are simply my first impressions.   

 California gives the poor a new legal right

By Carol J. Williams October 17, 2009

Under a new law, the state {{TRANSLATION:  Tax dollars}} will provide lawyers in key civil cases, such as those dealing with eviction and domestic abuse.

{{An odd term for Domestic VIOLENCE Awareness Month, don’t you think?}}


Advocates say underprivileged litigants will get a better shot at justice.

{{When in doubt, ask many advocates and an occasional underprivileged litigant.  For another point of view, I still recommend http://www.poormagazine.com, which I cited in my VERY first post here.}}

Irma Green, 62, lives on disability benefits and was represented for free by an attorney as she fought an eviction notice. Now California will pay lawyers in such cases. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2009)

California is embarking on an unprecedented civil court experiment to pay for attorneys to represent poor litigants who find themselves battling powerful adversaries in vital matters affecting their livelihoods and families.

{{That’s odd.  I’m in that situation, in California, and have been “battling” for years to FIND pro bono legal help for such vital matters.  I didn’t find it, however, after I lost it all – meaning custody, right to child support arrears, a restraining order, visitation, or in effect ANYTHING enforceable in court, or outside of it, I DID find out about some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the fatherhood-crisis guys.  }}

The program is the first in the nation to recognize a right to representation in key civil cases and provide it for people fighting eviction, loss of child custody, domestic abuse or neglect of the elderly or disabled.

Advocates for the poor say the law, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week, levels the legal playing field and gives underprivileged litigants a better shot at attaining justice against unscrupulous landlords, abusive spouses, predatory lenders and other foes.

{{Somehow I feel the term, a better “shot” at justice is a bit inappropriate for domestic violence (aka “abuse”) issues that sometimes involve firearms and familicides.  Moreover, when life is at stake, I am somehow not reassured by having a “shot” at justice (sounds more like gambling to me, than what those who wrote the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, etc., envisioned — particularly as to separation of powers.  Let’s see:  We are taxed, causing financial stresses, sometimes affecting domestic violence issues.  How taxes are actually used is a little obtuse, but now SOME of these taxes are going to be put towards getting  SOME of us a SHOT at getting back SOME of our legal rights, and/or children (see below….)}}{{??}}

Although some analysts worry that it could swell state court dockets or eat up resources better spent on other needs of the poor, the pilot project that won bipartisan endorsement in the state Assembly will be financed by a $10 increase in court fees for prevailing parties.

Anybody confronted with criminal charges has a constitutional right to an attorney, as set out in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright in 1963. But such a right does not apply in civil court, and the majority of citizens fighting what can be life-altering civil actions now attempt to handle their cases without professional guidance.

{{Has anyone considered looking at what life-altering actions, which I happen to believe the matters of domestic violence, child abuse, and any form of extortion, robbery, etc., surrounding those, ARE (per se), are doing in the civil arena to start with?  Or about the origin & purpose of “family” law (which technically seems to be lumped here with civil law, but there are still more differences in standards and procedures, which an “Elkins Family Law Task force” is even as we speak (er, as I blog) addressing — now. . . . I’m serious, I’ve thought about this:

HOW did CRIMINAL differentiate between CIVIL?  And Family split off from civil?  Our founding documents talk about individual rights.  How come it’s worse to affect the “state” by, say, jaywalking or failing to pay a parking ticket, than an individual who is part and parcel, and like as not paying some of the salaries of that “state.”??}}

An estimated 4 million people seek to represent themselves in California in civil matters each year, the state Judicial Council estimates, not because they want to but because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. “How ironic that you can be arrested for stealing a small amount of food — a box of Twinkies from a convenience store — and you’re entitled to counsel. But if your house is on the line, or your child is on the line, or you’re being abused in a domestic relationship, you don’t have the same right to counsel,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the bill.

{{that’s VERY politically  correct term for domestic violence, wife-battering, husband-battering, child abuse, elder abuse, or any of those more graphic terms, including intimate partner violence.  Dept. of Sanitation must have been in on the speechwriting there…}}

California’s pilot project is the first in the nation to create a right of “Civil Gideon” and will be closely watched by access-to-justice advocates across the country, say legal analysts who expect the presence of lawyers to ease court congestion.

{{SOME of the court congestion relates to drug offences (3 strikes you’re out, etc.).  SOME of the court congestion also relates to the fact that, in family law, hearsay creates a court hearing, and it doesn’t get settled when it SHOULD if there is money to be made by court-appointed officials before a child turns 18.  I’m not ad libbing this, I know whereof I speak.  The courts will be cleared of YOUR case when:  1.  Children age out (most typical) 2. Potential money RUNS out, and it doesn’t appear that federal HHS funds to the courts are even CLOSE to doing that, to keep the debate (never settled by due process, evidence, fact-finding, etc.) going, or 3.  The woman, man, or children attempting to flee domestic violence fail, and one party ceases living.   THen it goes to criminal. or 4, which I caught My state attempting to do to MY kids — force me to choose (being a non-abusive parent, including on the record) between calling CPS or letting the batterer violate the court order, rather than simply enforce it as written.  Enforced court orders = decongested courts = less business for the associated professionals.  It’s that simple…) 

As conceived, the program will fund public interest law groups, where lawyers typically earn salaries more on the level of teachers than their well-paid colleagues from big law firms. Such legal aid groups are overwhelmed by the needs of the indigent. At least 70% of those with civil law problems are turned away for lack of funds, experts say. Groups receiving the money will be chosen by the Judicial Council{{***RED FLAG — Check FUNDING already going to Judicial Council, and track it if you dare!}}  , and the pilot program will be reevaluated to determine whether it should be continued beyond its 2017 funding guarantee. “The great thing about this is that local courts and local legal aid programs will team up and provide local solutions,” said Julia R. Wilson, executive director of the Legal Aid Assn. of California.

{{Let’s see — Judicial Branch, Legal Branch, as paid by IRS (taxes, i.e., state) from the Exec. Branch.  THAT”S a surefire separation of powers and decentralization}}.

Some legal analysts, however, see the project as a misplaced priority, especially given the persistent shortcomings in a criminal justice system many say is increasingly plagued by instances of wrongful conviction. “I think it is of considerable doubt that this is the best use of scarce resources on behalf of the poor,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, a Chapman University professor of civil rights law, arguing that the tens of millions to be devoted to civil case representation would be better spent on law enforcement, quality day care or lead paint eradication in low-income communities.

“There are a lot of questions that nobody asks when this kind of bill gets passed, because everyone is too busy applauding that more money is going to be paid to lawyers.”

{{Well said.  By the way, Chapman University is I think a Christian one.  Not that I’m all hot on faith-institutions (see my blog if you question this), but that is a good point.}}

 Three years ago, the American Bar Assn. called on states to provide a right to counsel in civil cases in which “basic human needs” are at stake.


Since then, nine states have made moves to afford limited civil representation, but California will be the first to extend that to a broad array of family law and social justice issues. “A lot of states have moved forward bit by bit. What is noteworthy about the California situation is that the proposed pilot projects are in a lot of the core areas people have been pushing for, like foreclosure and landlord-tenant disputes,” said Russell Engler, a professor at New England Law in Boston.

Over the four-plus decades since the Gideon ruling, legal researchers have documented that when litigants have lawyers in civil cases, more just and cost-effective outcomes are reached.

For example, women seeking restraining orders against abusive partners were successful 83% of the time when they had legal representation, compared with 32% without an attorney, according to a 2003 report by University of Baltimore law professor Jane C. Murphy.

{{Did Ms. Murphy do the 5-year follow-up study on what happened when they attempted to renew a restraining order, and/or if such a case went into family law?  Now THAT would be interesting, because this is precisely where the quality legal help drops off.  Mine did, at least.}}

Giving civil litigants the legal advice they need to work out a settlement ahead of their court dates also cuts down on post-judgment appeals and the costly social services incurred when parents lose their rights simply because they don’t know how to navigate the legal system, analysts say.

 “In abuse-and-neglect cases, if parents don’t have representation, children spend more time in foster care, and that’s very expensive for the state,” said Laura K. Abel, deputy director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The project gives hope to the legions of unrepresented civil litigants such as Angela Rhoden, 31, who said she was forced to leave her job in Atlanta earlier this year to come to Los Angeles after the father of her 10-year-old son seized the boy during a visit here and refused to return him. “When I came to California, I didn’t have legal representation, nor could I afford it. I didn’t even have a job at the time,” said the mother, whose case was recently taken up by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

{{See button blogs to the right.  Many of these are mothers who lost custody in a similar way to Ms. Rhoden, and nationwide, internationally.  I’m very happy for Ms. Rhoden’s help.  I also happen to know of mothers WITHIN California who’ve had their kids taken out, or taken within California, and are just stuck, period.  They’ve lost sometimes EVERYthing.  For example, Karen Anderson (California Protective Parents).  I’m not mentioning more names, but we are everywhere.  We are losing them not because we lack representation, but because judges, mediators, evaluators, and others, are ruling inappropriately, and in violation of the rules of court, and little we can do about it, especially not KNOWING the rules of court.  Moreover, there’s the cronyism factor.   How are more tax-paid attorneys going to fix that?  As I look at my own case — and I could afford an attorney here adn there in it — I believe that my attorneys both “threw” the case and compromised my rights.  Why?  They have to stand in front of a judge another day.  However, a mother’s, or father’s perspective, is to win, and get OUT of court.  There are so many factors to consider.}}

“To a certain extent, you know your rights,” she said. “But if you have a lawyer to speak on your behalf, the court just takes you more seriously.” Irma Green, an ailing 62-year-old surviving on $890 a month in disability benefits, said she would have been unable to fight off an eviction notice from her landlord in South L.A. if she hadn’t had an attorney represent her for free.

{{SHe is RIGHT, but that’s the COURT’s fault.  I’ve experienced this.  However, I know my case better than any attorney who speeds through my life is going to. . . . . . There are pros and cons to being represented, and MUCH more communication.  When push comes to shove, do you know what that attorney is going to say, on your behalf (supposedly) in the actual hearing?  If not, then caveat emptorWho pays the piper calls the tune.}}

“I can’t tell you how bad it feels when you’re sick and you’re a senior citizen and they’re kicking you out of your home,” she said, crediting the intervention of Neighborhood Legal Services with preventing her from becoming homeless.

(I would LOVE to comment further on this, and can, but a degree of anonymity should be preserved here!)

carol.williams@latimes.com Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

I hope readers will seriously look at yet another “PILOT” program in CA.  “Coming soon to your state” most likely, that’s how it’s done.  I wish I had more time to investigate, but as I’ve said elsewhere, the case is in flux and closure — well, when is that going to come?  It’s round XX and both parties have had to regroup and strategize. . . . . a few feints, sizing up each others’ connections, and so forth.  Making alliances.  This is called “Family” court, and supposedly not adversarial.  Yeah, right…..  It’s not over til the fat lady sings.  I guess that would be me, and I plan to!

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