Public Hearing Held by Pa Senate Judiciary Committee on Plight of Low-Income Pennsylvanians Without Legal Representation

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, along with other judges, low-income Pennsylvanians and the lawyers who help them, and community and business leaders testified at a Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing, Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice?   that was held on Thursday, May 23 in Philadelphia. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery, Bucks) chaired the hearing.

Chief Justice Castille is the Honorary Chair of a broad-based “Civil Legal Justice Coalition” created to work collaboratively on exploring strategies to improve access to justice.  The 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association and 28,000-member Pennsylvania Bar Association are among the organizations that are part of the Coalition.

Among those testifying at the hearing were a number of low-income clients, and key stakeholders including: Kathleen D. Wilkinson, Chancellor, Philadelphia Bar Association; Sister Mary Scullion, Co-Founder, Project HOME; Dabney Miller, Associate Director, Women’s Law Project; Hon. Margherita Patti-Worthington, President Judge, Court of Common Pleas, Monroe County; Hon. Margaret T. Murphy, Supervising Judge, Family Division, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas; Hon. Annette M. Rizzo, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas; and Catherine C. Carr, Executive Director, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright establishing the right to counsel for the indigent in serious criminal matters.  Few such Gideon-type rights have been recognized in civil matters where basic human needs such as shelter, safety, health, sustenance and child custody are at stake.  Meanwhile, the demand has surged for civil legal representation on behalf of the poor, whose ranks have swelled following one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.  

Those needs have been largely unmet due to a “perfect storm” of sustained, repeated and severe cuts in federal and state funding and a tight private fund-raising environment that have resulted in layoffs of legal aid staff and office closings.  The gulf between client need and availability of legal help has been termed “the civil justice gap.”

State and national studies estimate that a staggering 80 percent of critical legal needs of low-income people go unmet due to grossly insufficient funding and support.

The purpose of the public hearing was to explore and create awareness of the current state and scope of the unmet need for civil legal services by low-income Pennsylvanians confronting legal problems involving basic human needs.  

Three hearings on the issue are being held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The first hearing was held on May 7 in Harrisburg.  Video and audio recordings of the May 7 hearing are available on the website of the Senate Judiciary Committee. More information, including a complete witness list and copies of the testimony presented at the hearing are available in our related story on the May 7 hearing.

A future hearing will be scheduled in Pittsburgh.

Public interest agency clients with serious legal problems impacting their basic human needs and those of their families – individuals without access to an attorney or who otherwise could not have been helped without access to an attorney – shared their personal stories of struggle.

Additionally, key stakeholders testified regarding the legal community’s ethical obligations to the civil side of justice and discussed the adverse impact of the growing civil justice gap, including the economic and social harm (direct and/or indirect) when critical legal needs are unmet as well as the economic and social benefits to the community when such needs are met.

The hearing elicited information about how the substantial number of unrepresented litigants in civil legal matters adversely impacts the quality of justice for all parties in Pennsylvania courts, increases the amount of litigation and undermines the rule of law.

Additionally, the hearing explored how the unmet need for civil legal assistance is profoundly impacting vulnerable Pennsylvanians and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence and increasing poverty. In these difficult economic times, current funding is inadequate to meet the critical need for civil legal assistance in the state.

Watch Video of the Hearing

Hearing Agenda and Testimony
Testimony of Chief Justice Castille

Live Tweets from the Hearing (#civilgideon)