While ignorance of the law has never been a successful defense, not knowing one’s legal rights has led to wide range of unintended abuses — along with fines and penalties — being levied against defendants who are unaware of their right to legal representation in civil matters.
That theme will be the undercurrent as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille convenes the second of three Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee public hearings themed, “Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice?” The hearing will begin on Thursday, May 29, at 9:30 a.m. at the Philadelphia Bar Association, 1101 Market St.
Castille is the honorary chairman of the Civil Legal Justice Coalition, which includes the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia as a member. Jennifer Clarke, the law center’s executive director, said ignorance of rights can, and has been, very costly.
“This is a timely hearing because people don’t know they have a right to a lawyer when they are facing basic, fundamental, human problems. That’s especially important here, because if you lose your house because of the mortgage or your landlord is trying to evict you, you have no right to a lawyer,” explained Clarke, who is also serving as co-chair of the coalition, noting the slight difference in the letter of the law regarding criminal and civil proceedings. “There’s situations were a woman’s safety is at issue and she needs protections from abuse, and there’s no legal right to a lawyer in these circumstances.
“We want to make people understand that taking on these basic fundamental problems without a lawyer causes great harm, not only to the person, but to society,” Clarke continued. “Especially for those threatened with eviction. They could be kicked out and left homeless.”
Among those expected to testify are Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Kathleen D. Wilkinson, Project HOME co-founder Sister Mary Scullion, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Family Division Supervising Judge Margaret T. Murphy and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Executive Director Catherine C. Carr.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf will chair the hearing, which is open to the public.
“Equal access to legal representation is one of the most critical justice issues we face today,” Greenleaf said. “I am pleased to see the Commonwealth’s legal community come together to offer their insights and recommendations to the Judiciary Committee on this important matter. In recent years, we have seen the number of individuals seeking assistance increase and funding disappear due to the economic downturn.”
According to Clarke, another thrust of the hearing will be to provide interested parties with a list of lawyers and legal organizations that will help those in civil courses who cannot afford representation. While the Public Interest Law Center isn’t one of those organizations — the law center handles cases with a different makeup — Clarke cited the 50-year-old landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to counsel for the indigent in serious criminal matters, and says that sort of protection needs to be extended to the civil courts as well.
“The Supreme Court said that there isn’t a constitutional right [being abused] in these [civil] cases, and we want the Pennsylvania legislators to [subsidize these civil lawyers] like any other important thing in society. This right to a lawyer is so important to a great many people, and the Legislation should recognize that,” Clarke said, adding that the coalition is lobbying legislators on this issue. “People will come to this hearing and talk about what happened to them when they didn’t have a lawyer. They have either lost or risked losing their homes, or gotten sick due to it.”