California could become the first state in the nation to provide lawyers to poor civil litigants.
Assembly Judiciary Chairman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, has introduced legislation that would raise certain court fees by $10 to fund a so-called “civil Gideon” project. Assembly Bill 590 calls on the Judicial Council to create a pilot program to serve some of the 4 million litigants who appear annually in California’s courts without a lawyer.
"In this economic downturn, many Californians are facing homelessness for the first time in their lives,” Feuer said in a prepared statement. “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.”
But someone is gonna be paying for that lawyer, after the jump ...
The bill would raise an estimated $10 million for legal aid organizations to represent litigants who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, an amount equal to $44,100 annually for a family of four. The Judicial Council would determine which types of civil cases qualify, but Feuer envisions disputes over housing and other “basic human needs.”
The $10 surcharge would target people who have already collected a judgment. Some of the assessed services would include issuing a writ of attachment, issuing an abstract of judgment and filing a workers compensation award.
The state already enacted a host of new fees on civil and criminal penalties to finance a $5 billion courthouse construction bond sale. While the bill would not add a surcharge to those fees, it’s unclear will Feuer will be able to attract the support of bar groups for his legislation.
“We haven't had a chance to review the bill yet to see to which cases the fees apply to, but we are sensitive to fee increases in this environment,” said Mike Belote, lobbyist for the California Defense Counsel.
The American Bar Association’s litigation section, Chief Justice Ronald George and legal aid groups have lobbied for civil Gideon legislation, with little success so far. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose father-in-law Sargent Shriver was an early advocate for legal aid to the poor, included $5 million for a civil Gideon pilot project in his 2007-08 budget, but the money was later stripped in legislative negotiations.
— Mike McKee