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.