Is Legal Counsel a Right in the United States?

There was a nice article in the Atlantic this week regarding the right to legal assistance marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case that guaranteed a right to counsel.  NPR also did a similar story this morning.  We wrote about access to legal counsel in the latest issue of the Street Chronicle by Greg and then a follow up question and answer article by a staff member of the ACLU about this issue. 

This is a huge problem within the homeless community, and can significantly increase the stay in a shelter.   As Greg talked about in his article in the Street Chronicle, most of the public defenders meet with their clients for a couple of minutes and then suggest that the individual "take a plea"  from the Prosecutor.   Greg also talked about Prosecutors over-charging people with criminal offenses so that they will take a plea to reduce the offense down to something reasonable.  The risk of going to court and facing a felony that will result in long jail times rather than pleading to a lesser offense and only having a short jail time is real and happens everyday over at the Ontario Court House.  If everyone demanded a trial, the system would grind to a halt and collapse on itself. 

The results of these decisions to avoid a trial are that the individual has a criminal background which could keep them from gainful employment or housing for an extended period of time.  In essence, the individual is bargaining for shorter time behind bars outside to face a longer time in a prison without bars on the outside.  They will face increased risk to their health with sleep deprivation and unstable food intake as well as months waiting for something to change.  They will have to face the humiliation of asking for help with housing and clothing everyday.  Taking the plea can have a negative impact on a person's life for decades.  

We have a homeless legal assistance program in Cleveland.  While we do not deal with the criminal side of the judicial system, we know that the inability to find effective counsel has a devastating effect on low income people even in the civil side of the law.  Often the lack of effective legal assistance results in a person becoming homeless.  About 5-8% of the landlord tenant cases involve issues other than money, and the tenant is at a disadvantage in court.  There are many examples when the employee is improperly terminated or not paid legally, but cannot find legal help.  There are many times when one party cannot afford legal counsel in a divorce and is put in the place to be in debt for the rest of their lives or need some neutral guidance on child support.  On this 50th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright which primarily dealt with the right to counsel for those facing jail time, the right to legal help is tenuous at best.  The right to legal counsel for administrative law and civil law for low income people is a long way from reality.  It is difficult to imagine that legal proceedings that can result in the individual bankrupt and destitute does not require that the individual receive effective legal counsel.

Brian Davis

UPDATE:  The New York Times also featured a story on the 50th anniversary of Gideon and the inability to obtain legal counsel in America.  This article talks about the inability to find help for civil cases.

James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, said, “Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.”

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