Monday, April 20, 2009
Feuer: Protecting Low-Income Tenants
Thursday, April 2, 2009 – By WeHo News Staff, West Hollywood
West Hollywood, California (Thursday, April 2, 2009) -
Continuing his pioneering ways, 42nd District Assembly member Mike Feuer (D-West Hollywood) introduced a bill this legislative session that would provide a right to counsel for low-income people in critical civil cases.
42nd District Assembly member Mike Feuer (D-West Hollywood) introduced a bill this legislative session that would provide a right to counsel for low-income people in critical civil cases. Photo by WeHo News.
The right to counsel is already provided to people facing criminal charges; this bill would expand those services to critical civil cases, such as eviction proceedings, that can have a serious impact on a person’s life.
The bill, Assembly Bill 590, would make California the first state in the nation to offer such services.
"In this economic downturn, many Californians are facing homelessness for the first time in their lives,” said Mr. Feuer.
“Now more than ever, we must take steps to ensure that essential legal rights regarding basic human needs – including shelter – are not sacrificed or abandoned simply because someone cannot afford to hire a private lawyer to assist them.”
Currently, attorneys are appointed for indigent parties only in criminal cases.
42nd District Assembly member Mike Feuer (D-West Hollywood) introduced a bill this legislative session that would provide a right to counsel for low-income people in critical civil cases.
However, legal officials agree that some issues decided in civil cases can be just as significant as in criminal cases, such as cases involving the elderly and individuals with disabilities, and the well‑being and safety of parents and children, and the basic need for adequate shelter.
AB 590 would support the project through a $10 increase on certain court fees when a party wins a case, without drawing on scarce state funds.
The measure reflects a growing national movement in the legal community known as "civil Gideon" after the name of the Supreme Court case establishing the right to counsel in criminal cases.
The concept is endorsed by judges, legal leaders and scholars, including the American Bar Association, the California Commission on Access to Justice, and the Conference of California Bar Associations.
Court observers generally agree that without a lawyer, most people cannot win, even when the law and the evidence is on their side.
As retired Court of Appeals Justice Earl Johnson has noted, lawyers are as essential to the proper operation of the courts as clerks, bailiffs and probation officers.
When one side lacks such representation, the entire system breaks down.
Feuer also noted that timely access to legal counsel can help prevent more costly problems later.
"This bill is not just about fairness and justice, it is in our economic self interest,” Feuer said.
“Just as health services can decrease the need for expensive ER treatment, timely access to legal services can prevent an illegal foreclosure or other problems that can lead to homelessness, saving taxpayers money."
West Hollywood contracts with Bet Tzedek to handle civil legal matters for low-income people, but their system is being overwhelmed with new clients.
Nonprofit legal aid organizations are struggling because of funding cuts as the result of the recession, coupled with increased need for legal services.
"It is a basic principle of the legal system that the outcome of a case should not depend on whether you are rich or poor,” said Julia Wilson, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Association of California
“But legal aid programs are not adequately funded, and without advice and assistance many laws are not enforced and poor people lose their legal rights simply because they cannot afford a lawyer,” she said.
Furthermore, Ms. Wilson said, “Assembly member Feuer's bill is an important step to help address the enormous justice gap that now exists between the legal needs of low-income Californians and the services available to assist them."