States look to provide lawyers for the poor in civil cases

A flood of poor defendants representing themselves — often ineffectively — in dire cases involving eviction, foreclosure, child custody and involuntary commitment has led to a push in legislatures to expand rights to free lawyers in certain civil proceedings.

Everyone has a right to a free lawyer in criminal cases if they can't afford one. But the same right isn't guaranteed in civil cases.

More than two dozen bills being considered in 18 states this year would provide public defenders or private lawyers at state expense for low-income people in certain civil cases, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, which is run by the Public Justice Center nonprofit group in Baltimore.

"When your basic human needs are at stake, you should have a lawyer to protect those needs," said John Pollock, a lawyer with the Public Justice Center who coordinates the national coalition. "The consequences are too great."

The spike in self-represented defendants stems from the Great Recession, which not only created new waves of foreclosure, eviction, debt collection and bankruptcy cases, but also hindered people's ability to pay for lawyers, judges and lawyers say. Such cases have overwhelmed and slowed court dockets, judges say.

Adelaida Torres, of Hartford, couldn't afford a lawyer in 2011 as she tried to regain custody of her two daughters from her now-ex-husband. She lost custody of Gloria and Elizabeth, then ages 8 and 4, while she was in jail for several weeks, unable to afford bail after being arrested for what she called a bogus misdemeanor assault allegation lodged by her ex.

Torres had to represent herself in court trying to win back custody and said she felt overwhelmed. She managed to get supervised visitation with her daughters, but little else after nearly a year of effort.

"I didn't know anything about the court system," she said. "I was crying. I was very lost."

She believes she never would have regained custody if she hadn't learned about Greater Hartford Legal Aid, which provides free legal help to the indigent. It took nearly 1 1/2 years, but legal aid lawyer Linda Allard was able to win back sole custody of the children to Torres in late 2013.

Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a task force to look into expanding the right to free lawyers for the poor in civil cases.

State Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed the bill and cited the case of a Connecticut woman, Adrianne Oyola, who represented herself in court while trying to get a permanent restraining order against the father of her 7-month-old son. A judge denied the order last year, and days later authorities said the father, Tony Moreno, threw the infant off a bridge and then himself jumped off.

The baby died, but Moreno survived and has pleaded not guilty to murder.

Looney said the judge might have been more inclined to issue the restraining order if Oyola had had an attorney.

The push to increase access to free lawyers has been led by a group of state Supreme Court chief justices and the American Bar Association.

"At the end of the day, we're trying to make sure people are treated fairly and the outcome is just," said Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers.

Every year, more than 80 percent of low-income people with civil legal troubles do not obtain the legal representation they need, and legal aid organizations have to turn away nearly a million people a year nationwide because of a lack of resources, according to the Legal Services Corp., a group funded by the federal government that is the largest provider of legal aid funding in the country.

Legal aid lawyers say scores of poor people who couldn't afford lawyers have been evicted, lost child custody or had trouble obtaining restraining orders.

Some proposals passed or being considered in other states:

— Measures in Florida , New Jersey and Pennsylvania to allow free lawyers in cases of involuntary commitment for substance abuse.

— Proposals to require free legal counsel to poor people in certain eviction cases in Massachusetts and to provide the right to a lawyer to the poor facing eviction or foreclosure in New York .

— Measures regarding free lawyers for indigent people in parental-rights cases in Kentucky and Mississippi .

— Georgia lawmakers this year voted to give mentally ill people the right to a free lawyer if they can't afford one when an order for involuntary inpatient treatment is about to expire and medical experts request continued involuntary treatment.

— Oregon lawmakers voted to allow free lawyers for eligible juveniles facing the possibility of having to register as sex offenders.

Jep Livingston, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran from Philadelphia, faced homelessness last year as the city moved to sell his longtime home after he defaulted on a plan to repay back property taxes. He defaulted, he said, because someone stole his wallet and drained his bank account, and he missed payments.

He had gone to the city and several organizations for help, but to no avail. His daughter and 5-year-old grandson live with him and faced homelessness, too.

"When I thought about him being homeless at 5 years old, it broke my heart," Livingston said. "I was really close to losing my home. I was desperate."

He, too, learned about the legal aid group SeniorLaw Center, which was able to prevent a tax sale of his home, arrange a new payment plan for his property taxes and knock his future taxes to zero under a city tax abatement program for the elderly.

"It felt to me like I was in the middle of the ocean and they threw me a life raft," Livingston said.

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