The right to a civil lawyer


I like Sup. David Chiu's idea of giving indigent plaintiffs in civil cases the right to a lawyer. It's one of those legal and political issues that's been hanging around for decades: Everyone accused of a crime has the Constitutional right to counsel, but if you're sued and have no money, you could very well be  SOL.

Now, there are a few places that some people can get help -- nonprofit legal groups that help seniors, tenants, and others, but there aren't enough of those lawyers to meet the need, and some people don't qualify for any of the available help. Under the law, a poor person who gets sued has no guaranteed right to any assistance at all, and can wind up representing him- or herself in court, even if he or she has no legal background or experience.

That's one reason landlords tend to win eviction cases against low-income people: If the tenant can't find free legal help, it's high-priced landlord lawyer who knows all the tricks against poor tenant who has no idea how to respond to a summons and complaint.

The supervisors have approved Chiu's resolution, which asserts than San Francisco is a "right to civil counsel" city, but there's not a whole lot of money around to fund it. He's asking for a modest pilot program costing no more than $100,000 and focusing on eviction defense, which is a great place to start. His idea is to get the big law firms in the city to help out -- to devote some of their time and money to pro bono work in the city's indigent civil defense program.

And some of them will, and that's great. But what we really need is a funding source for this -- and it seems to me that the lawyers of the city are a logical place to start.

Yes, there are unemployed lawyers and lawyers who barely make rent. But as a whole, the class of people licensed to practice law in San Francisco is better off than most of the rest of us. The state bar hits every lawyer up for about $400 a year to fund bar operations, and the interest that lawyers earn on client trust funds has to go to indigent legal defense.

So why not set up a San Francisco lawyer's fee -- say, $50 a year for everyone practicing in the city -- to fund the city's civil legal defense program? I don't know exactly how many lawyers we have, and I can't find anyone at the state bar who can answer that, but I've seen published reports in the past suggesting that the city has more lawyers per-capita than anywhere else except Washington, D.C. One story that ran years ago in the Examiner put it at one per 70 residents -- which would mean more than 10,000 lawyers in the city. So a $50 fee would bring in half a million dollars --plenty to set up an office and hire a couple of lawyers and have a director who could spend time running down pro bono counsel to help.

I have no idea if the city can legally do that; I checked with the folks in the City Attorney's Office, and they have no simple answer. So Chiu would have to request a legal opinion on the question.

But if it's possible, it's a great idea, and I suspect even most lawyers in the city would support it. 


UPDATE: The state bar folks pointed me to the right place on the bar website, and it turns out there are 17,000 lawyers in SF. That's $850,000 a year.



You're the defendant.

And you want plaintiff law firms to fund free legal advice for their adversaries? This idea is ridiculous. Any individual with a good case can get free legala dvice on a contingency basis. If your case isn't good enough for a lawuer to want to take it on contingency, chances are you're in the wrong and deserve to suffer.

Posted by Anonymous on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

Actually, very few lawyers defend civil cases on contingency. That's mostly for plaintiff lawyers. And what if you're sued and didn't do anything wrong? You think that doesn't happen? It's like saying if you're arrested you must be guilty.

Posted by tim on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

And it is plaintiff's who can get a contingency arrangement if (and only if) their case has merit.

Defendants can't typically get contingency but do attract pro bona support if their cause is worthy. But most people who get sued have generally done something to deserve it, else the judge will quickly throw it out.

Posted by Anonymous on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

I can just see his eyes lighting up with glee at figuring out yet another way to milk money out of the citizens of SF for this harebrained scheme.

Just imagine the joy in deadbeat land when 12-months-behind-on-his-rent Dan Deadbeat discovers he can fight that unjust evil landlord's lawsuit against him - courtesy of the City of San Francisco!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

"Rights" are another one of those worn out buzz words that have no meaning anymore any many circles but "I want."

Posted by matlock on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

Only the rich should have rights. No money, no right. Don't like it? Then go live in France!

Posted by Conservatroll on Feb. 29, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

Would you agree with right wingers who talk about baby's "right" to be born?

The right to make other people's kids pray in school?

the word "rights" has a real world meaning.

There are all sorts of rights these days that I've never noticed mentioned in any founding documents.

The word "rights" has become a meaningless slogan by the right and the left.

Also your class based strawman ravings are just weird.

Posted by matlock on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 12:22 am

I fully agree and thank you for pointing this out. I applaud Chiu's proposal and think it is a good first step, but, unfortunately, it is close to an unfunded mandate. Funding one coordinator dosen't deliver much unless you have the attys to take cases. And as someone who works with tenants, you are right, a high priced attorney, working pro-bono doesn't necessarily have the skills and experience to do eviction defense. What is truly sad is that there are many non-profit, legal service agencies in the city who do great work but are underfunded and can not serve as many as needed. If the city really wants such a program to work, they should be putting their money where their mouth is and helping to fund the array of groups we have such as bay area legal aid, eviction defense collaborative, homeless advocacy project, etc.who are struggling to maintain services on limited budgets.

Posted by Sara Shortt on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 11:06 am

proposition on the ballot and then you'll see how much support this has.

I'd guess - next to none.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2012 @ 11:41 am

I agree that while most of the time, someone who gets sued is usually in the wrong and that is why some lawyers are unwilling to defend him, there are cases where the defendant has done nothing wrong, but there is no one there to defend him. Everyone has a right to a lawyer, and I think this will be a good cause to continue.

Posted by Simon on May. 23, 2012 @ 8:41 pm