Saturday, December 4, 2010
The State Bar may ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to appoint counsel in civil cases-- but lawyers could already do that.
In Gideon v. Wainwright, the US Supreme Court first established that criminal defendants were entitled to a lawyer -- and that the State must provide a lawyer if the defendant couldn't afford one.
Now, Legal Action of Wisconsin, through the Right To Counsel Task Force, has filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Wisconsin to ask that civil litigants in extreme circumstances be appointed counsel. The Task Force includes prominent lawyers and judges and filed, on September 30, the petition signed by 1,320 people.
The proposal apparently would apply to people who meet certain characteristics and are extremely poor -- below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. (That would be a single person making less than $22,000 a year in 2009, or a family of four making less than $45,000.) It's expected that it would cost about $58 million per year in its current form.*
My question is: Why wait for the Supreme Court to order this? There are about 23,000 lawyers in the State Bar of Wisconsin. That's about $2500 more per year per lawyer in membership dues to fund this program right now -- so just by charging lawyers $200 per month we could fund a program that would appoint lawyers to represent people at a reduced (but guaranteed) rate.
The State Bar could easily set up a two-tier program -- a cap-and-trade for lawyers, if you will. Lawyers could either commit to doing X number of hours of appointed counsel work -- at the going rate -- or could pay their way out of it. So lawyers not willing to work for the indigent would pay higher dues, to support lawyers who would. And then almost everyone would have a lawyer -- reducing courtroom congestion and making sure that victims of abuse get injunctions, that people don't lose their homes, that nobody wrongly garnishes them, and more.
For more information, and to support this project, click here. The Bar is apparently going to refer this to the Wisconsin Access to Justice Board for review, and they can be contacted here.
*The original post said $8 million; that was based on a typo. The actual proposed cost is $58 million. The numbers have been adjusted accordingly.