DC Council Hearing: The Need for a Civil Gideon

June 29, 2016

In the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainright, a groundbreaking decision was handed down: criminal defendants have a fundamental right to counsel even if they can’t afford it. 

Now a movement in DC and across the country is pushing for that right to extend to civil cases. It’s become known as civil Gideon

DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently held a public roundtable on civil Gideon and the need for increased access to justice in the District of Columbia. Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow spoke at the roundtable along with other leaders of the local and national legal community. 

For 20 years Children’s Law Center has represented low-income children and families from DC’s poorest wards in civil cases ranging from ensuring schools provide special education services to getting landlords to address housing conditions such as mold or rodent infestations that make children sick.

But Children’s Law Center and other legal services organizations can only help a fraction of those who need it. In DC’s landlord-tenant court, for example, about 5-10 percent of renters have lawyers while 90 percent of landlords have secured an attorney, according to Beth Harrison of the Legal Aid Society. 

“[When renters don’t have counsel] they get outcomes that don’t match their rights.” What happens before the case gets to court is also important. 

During her remarks, Sandalow said of the more than 1,000 children attending DC Public Schools for whom Children’s Law Center advocated last year, just 20 landed in court.

“We need lawyers to resolve cases before litigation.”

But it can be difficult or impossible to avoid costly litigation without an attorney. And, if it does lead to court, lawyers are a necessity. 

 “Our justice system is designed for lawyers…it’s only well-navigated by lawyers,” said Jessica Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the DC Access to Justice Commission during her panel. 

“Imagine a hospital where if you’re a poor patient you’re told to put in your own IV. That would be morally deplorable. And it should be in our justice system.”

The need for civil representation in DC is dire.

[Former US Attorney General Eric Holder recently spoke with Children’s Law Center about the need for a civil Gideon. Read the interview.]

And while arguments are often made that it costs too much money, Sandalow pointed out the cost of not having a lawyer may be even higher. At Children’s Law Center she see kids regularly visit the emergency room because illegal and unsafe conditions in their home have caused yet another asthma attack. Since most of these children are on Medicaid, DC foots the bill.

“Not only is it the right thing because it’s kids, but it will save the government a whole lot of money.”

Children’s Law Center looks forward to pressing for these important changes as Councilmember McDuffie considers how the DC Council should address the lack of legal help for low-income families in civil court.