First in nation to study costs of “Civil Gideon” — a right to civil counsel

An estimated $106.6 million needed to address critical legal needs involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or custody

Other states have proposed “civil right to counsel” plans, but the Maryland Access to Justice Commission has become the first in the nation to take a bold step further by envisioning how the state could administer such a right, and how much that plan could cost.

The right to be represented by a lawyer applies primarily to criminal cases and does not apply in most civil matters. A “civil right to counsel,” also referred to as Civil Gideon, extends the right to be represented by a lawyer in civil cases that deal with the most basic of human needs, such as shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.

In a new report, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission notes that only about 22 percent of the civil legal needs of poor and low-income Maryland residents are being met. The Commission estimates that each year in Maryland, nearly 350,000 people appear in court proceedings involving basic human needs cases. These Marylanders, mostly individuals and families with low incomes, come to court without the benefit of counsel and usually without help from the existing voluntary legal services system.

The report, “Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland,” starts from the principle that “low-income Marylanders should have a right to counsel at public expense where basic human needs are at stake.” The report explores how much it could cost to implement the plan, taking into account factors such as the kinds of cases this right to counsel should include, compensation rates for attorneys, income-eligibility criteria and quality assurance standards.

“The Commission asked the unthinkable question – what might it cost to provide meaningful access to counsel if that right to civil counsel was to be established,” said retired Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker, chair of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. “In a report two years ago, we recommended that Maryland should support the principle that low-income residents should have the right to counsel at public expense in basic human needs cases. Now, we are projecting what that public expense might be. This is a tough issue, but one that must be addressed and resolved if a state wants to create a viable program.”

The estimated cost for a program that assures lawyers for critical civil cases is $106.6 million, the Commission states in the report. The Commission also urges that the creation of a right to counsel initiative should not divert existing funding away from the current civil legal services delivery system, which includes approximately 35 organizations in Maryland providing some legal services in civil matters. The report tries to envision the amount of additional funding required to fulfill the mandate of a civil right to counsel in these critical types of cases.

The annual report also highlights work produced by the Commission during the past year including:

The Maryland Access to Justice Commission was created by the Maryland Judiciary to improve and expand all people’s access to the state’s civil justice system. The goal of the Commission is to enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for persons who encounter barriers when dealing with the courts or trying to solve legal problems.

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