The Judicial Council has chosen seven pilot projects that will provide legal representation to a selected number of low-income Californians. The Legislature, via the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, AB 590, has funded these projects with $9.5 million per year starting on July 1, 2011. The pilots are administered by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
These seven pilot projects, each in a different area of the state, target cases involving critical legal issues that affect basic human needs such as housing, custody, conservatorship, and guardianship. In these kinds of disputes, low-income litigants are, for the most part, unrepresented—and often unaware of the various options open to them. The pilots target cases in which one side is represented by a lawyer and the other is not.
Each project is a partnership of a lead legal services nonprofit corporation, the court, and other legal services providers in the community. The projects will provide legal representation to low-income Californians at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. When selecting cases, the agencies will consider the complexity of the case and whether the potential client has special challenges, such as limited English proficiency, illiteracy, or disabilities. They will also review how serious the case is and whether the client has a good chance of prevailing. In addition, the agencies will look at whether providing assistance might save money in the long run by reducing the costs of social services such as homeless and domestic violence shelters.
Since the need for services is expected to outpace the available funding, it will not be possible to provide all eligible low-income parties with attorneys. Thus, the court partners will also receive funding to change procedures and practices to ensure that those parties who still lack attorneys have meaningful access to the courts, have their cases heard on the merits, and do not unintentionally give up their rights. These new court services will include expanded mediation assistance, language interpreters, a probate facilitator, a housing inspector, special parenting workshops, and other creative methods to address these important and challenging cases.
The legal services agencies selected for the pilot projects will screen litigants to identify eligible clients and will contract with other legal services providers in the community to provide services. Staff attorneys will be hired, but pro bono work by outside attorneys will also be encouraged. The lead legal services agency will be the main point of contact for referrals from the court and other agencies. Some projects will also provide assistance from social workers to help address the issues that clients face.
The AOC will conduct a study to demonstrate the effectiveness and continued need for each project. Those findings and recommendations will go to the Judicial Council, which in turn will present them to the Governor and the Legislature on or before January 31, 2016.
The study will include data on the impact of counsel on equal access to justice and the effect on court administration and efficiency. It will also focus on the enhanced coordination between courts and other government service providers and community resources. It will describe the benefits of providing representation to those who were previously not represented, both for the clients and the courts, and recommend strategies for maximizing the benefit of that representation in the future. In addition, the study will include data on the impact of the pilot program on families and children, as well as an assessment of the continuing unmet legal needs of low-income people.
As one of the first programs in the country to combine representation for low-income persons in these types of cases with court innovation, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act has attracted national attention. The lessons learned should be helpful to other courts working on innovations—and to everyone interested in the best ways of ensuring that all persons coming to court get an appropriate level of legal assistance in these critical cases.
SHRIVER AND THE IMPORTANCE OF LEGAL REPRESENTATION
The modern movement to offer legal services to low-income people was spearheaded by Sargent Shriver in 1966, aided by the American Bar Association, which at the time was headed by future United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. The movement has been driven by the great disparity that exists between the small number of lawyers available for low-income Americans compared with the abundant availability of legal services for others.
Over the past few decades, a number of studies have demonstrated that just outcomes are more likely to be reached in civil cases when litigants have legal representation