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Activists Push for Right to Counsel in US Civil Cases

People who are charged with crimes in the United States have a constitutional right to have an attorney provided to them by the government, if they can not afford one on their own. Legal advocates for the poor also want that right expanded to low-income people caught in non-criminal - or civil - cases.

Each year, millions of non-criminal cases in the United States are heard in civil court - cases involving child custody battles, housing evictions and other issues, including the case of Juliana Holmes in Baltimore, Maryland. Holmes’ estranged husband took away their three children when she was living in another state - and she could not afford a lawyer to get them back.

“He just took them out of the state of North Carolina so I moved here to follow my kids," said Holmes.

Holmes eventually got joint custody of her children with the help of a private organization called Maryland Legal Aid, which provided her with a lawyer at no cost.

Trish Cochran was her attorney. She’s among a growing number of lawyers and judges who think the right to an attorney, for critical civil cases such as these, should be a basic legal right in the United States. Right now, it is not.

“People have a constitutional right to their children; a right to have just some place to live; to have access to the resources that are available. It’s just that people don’t always have the savvy [knowledge] to get the resources that are there for them,” said Cochran.

Legal aid advocates say millions of people represent themselves in civil court without any legal training or experience.

People like Daniel Thurston. He, his wife and five year-old disabled son faced eviction - unless they could get a delay in civil court.

“To go to court and spend money that you don’t have for a lawyer and you can’t even pay the rent, so how can you do it?” he asked.

Legal aid advocate Deborah Gardner wants to see the millions like Thurston have the right to an attorney in civil cases. She said most developed countries in the world enacted statutory rights to civil counsel long ago - leaving the U.S. lagging far behind.

“It’s frustrating that a country that seeks to be a world leader remains behind the curve on something that’s as important as protecting people’s basic civil liberties, basic fundamental right in legal proceedings,” said Gardner.

Opponents say it will worsen an already-burdened court system. But studies show there are long-term benefits, like savings in law enforcement, shelters, foster care, even healthcare. There also are the intangible benefits.

“There’s no way to tell someone 'thank you' for helping you to get what you really want out of life because your kids mean more to you than a job or money. You can’t put a price on that,” said Holmes.

The battle for the right to civil counsel is taking place in state legislatures across the country. California, Massachusetts and Maryland, among others, are exploring pilot programs that experiment with the idea.

Thurston won his case in civil court with the help of one such program. His family still has a place to live, for now.