San Francisco launches “Right to Civil Counsel” pilot program

A city ordinance signed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has authorized a one-year Right to Civil Counsel pilot program to expand the right to free counsel for the city’s civil cases.

The pilot program is the first step towards realizing the city’s “firm commitment to creating a local judicial system that provides representation to all residents involved in civil proceedings,” and will be focused on “proceedings that could deny [residents] basic human needs, such as child custody, shelter, sustenance, safety or health, regardless of their income or ability to pay.”

The program will fund one staff person to coordinate among the city, the Superior Court, non-profit organizations, and others involved in the pilot. It will be independently evaluated upon completion, and if the evaluation finds it successful, the city will consider expanding it.

According to an article from The California Lawyer, this pilot is the first instance of a local government taking steps to offer a right to civil counsel; in other states efforts are driven mostly by private bars, legal service organizations, and court-created justice commissions.

For example, in 2009 the Philadelphia Bar started civil Gideon pilot projects in mortgage foreclosure and child custody cases. In 2007 the Boston Bar conducted a similar project with regard to eviction cases.

“By not providing counsel, cities and states end up paying the costs down the road,” says John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, “in extended foster care or more police enforcement or homeless shelters. The San Francisco ordinance is very innovative and noteworthy. It’s a milestone.”

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