In the United States, everyone has a right to an attorney for criminal matters. This right is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and the famous 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, but the right to counsel does not extend to the vast majority of civil proceedings (that is, any noncriminal legal proceeding). There is a movement to change that — with advocates calling for a “Civil Right to Counsel.”
The legal system is incredibly complicated and can be overwhelming to people attempting to navigate it without the assistance of a lawyer. Civil cases can have enormous impacts on peoples’ lives, from evictions to Social Security hearings to deportation proceedings and everything in between. Philadelphia must step up and guarantee a right to counsel for its residents in all legal proceedings, criminal or civil.
Philadelphia has already taken steps in this direction. In 2019, City Council passed a bill to provide free legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction in Philadelphia. The budget recently agreed upon by Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council allocated $3 million for this program, called the “Eviction Prevention Project.” This is a strong step in the right direction, as evictions are a very common civil legal issue, with Philadelphia averaging nearly 20,000 evictions per year (pre-pandemic, of course). The creation and funding of the Eviction Prevention Project shows that the will and the way for a full civil right to counsel do in fact exist in Philadelphia, but the inequalities of the civil legal system do not just end with low-income tenants facing eviction.
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