Pa. Sen. Judiciary Committee holds hearing on 'civil justice gap'

Attorneys representing low-income residents and their clients were scheduled to address

what is being called the “civil justice gap” during a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Harrisburg Tuesday.

The public hearing, titled “Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice?,” was designed to “explore and create awareness of the current state and scope of the unmet need for civil legal services by low-income Pennsylvanians confronting legal problems involving basic human needs,” according to the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association, which, along with the larger Pennsylvania Bar Association, are among the groups participating in the “Civil Legal Justice Coalition,” an organization chaired by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille that is designed to explore strategies to improve access to justice, especially on the civil end of things.

The Philadelphia Bar Association is scheduled to hold a second Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing on the matter on May 23 at its Center City headquarters.

As for this week’s session, those who were expected to testify before the panel included, but were not limited to, Samuel W. Milkes, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc., or PLAN; Lackawanna County Common Pleas Court Judge Chester T. Harhut, who also serves as president of the PLAN board of directors; Dauphin County Common Pleas Court President Judge Todd Hoover; Rhodia D. Thomas, executive director of MidPenn Legal Services; and Andrew F. Susko, chair of the Pennsylvania Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts Board.

The committee hearing comes in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to counsel for the indigent in criminal cases.

“Few such Gideon-type rights have been recognized in civil matters where basic human needs such as shelter, safety, health, sustenance and child custody are at stake,” reads a news release from the Philadelphia Bar Association. “Meanwhile, the demand has surged for civil legal representation on behalf of the poor, whose ranks have swelled following one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.”

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Montgomery County Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in his own statement that equal access to counsel is one of the most critical justice issues Pennsylvania is faced with today.

“I am pleased to see the Commonwealth’s legal community come together to offer their insights and recommendations to the Judiciary Committee on this important matter,” stated Greenleaf, who is also an attorney. “In recent years, we have seen the number of individuals seeking assistance increase and funding disappear due to the economic downturn. I would like to thank the Bar Associations of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania for their dedicated work for equal access to justice for all Pennsylvanians.”

According to the Philadelphia Bar Association, state and national studies have shown that about 80 percent of the critical legal needs of poorer citizens go unmet due to “grossly insufficient funding and support.”

Those scheduled to testify at Tuesday’s hearing also included clients with “serious legal problems impacting their basic human needs and those of their families.”

People without access to proper legal representation were expected to share with the committee personal stories of hardship and struggle.

Others were slated to touch on the legal community’s ethical obligations to the civil side of the justice system and what is being termed the adverse impact of the growing civil justice gap, including the economic and social issues that factor into the equation.

“Additionally, the hearing is expected to explore how the unmet need for civil legal assistance is profoundly impacting vulnerable Pennsylvanians and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence and increasing poverty,” the Philadelphia Bar Association’s news release reads. “In these difficult economic times, current funding is inadequate to meet the critical need for civil legal assistance in the state.”

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