It's time to provide legal counsel to the poor
When tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court is a cost-effective social policy that would prevent homelessness and uphold our ideals of fundamental fairness.
Poor people cannot afford lawyers, and in nearly all civil cases they don’t have a right to one. In the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court unanimously established the right to counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases on the grounds that a fair trial was virtually impossible without a lawyer. Eighteen years later, the court heard the case of Abby Gail Lassiter, a poor black woman from North Carolina who appeared without counsel at a civil trial that resulted in her parental rights being erased. This time, a divided Supreme Court ruled that the right to appointed counsel was reserved for indigent litigants only when the loss of physical liberty was at stake.
Incarceration is a misery, but the outcomes of civil cases, as Ms. Lassiter learned, can be devastating, with stubbornly resilient consequences. Consider eviction’s fallout. Families forced from their homes often lose their possessions, too: furniture and clothes piled on the sidewalk or auctioned off by moving companies. Evicted families experience long stretches of homelessness, with kids bouncing between shelters or abandoned houses.