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SF is 1st to Give Right to Counsel in Civil Cases

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By Andrew Chow, Esq. on June 06, 2012 9:43 AM

San Francisco will soon be the first U.S. city to extend the right to free counsel to civil cases in a year-long pilot program, the San Francisco Examiner reports.

A defendant's right to counsel currently applies to criminal cases nationwide, thanks to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision. It's described when a criminal suspect is read his rights: "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you."

Soon the right will also extend to civil cases in San Francisco, including domestic violence, child-custody, and eviction cases, the Examiner reports. But not everyone will get a free lawyer.

The right to free civil counsel will only apply to litigants who cannot afford an attorney, according to legislation approved Tuesday by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

The board must now vote within six months on plans to make the pilot program a reality, Bay City News reports.

Under the proposed program, a pool of attorneys would serve the needs of San Francisco's civil litigants. The attorneys would include members of the city's bar association, as well as private legal-aid groups. The city would pay for one staff member to coordinate the program.

Free civil attorneys could make a huge difference in San Francisco, where 95% of child-custody cases in 2009 were filed by a party without a lawyer, according to Supervisor David Chiu, who introduced the proposal.

Providing free legal counsel in civil cases shows "we are a country with liberty and justice for all," Chiu said.

But critics cited San Francisco's financial crunch as a reason to oppose extending the right to counsel to civil cases. San Francisco has enough problems paying for prosecutors and public defenders, critics said.

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