“Free the Law” for Low-Income Civil Litigants

Most low-income people do not have access to lawyers for civil cases, even for life-altering matters like child custody and eviction. In a 2009 study, the Legal Services Corporation estimated legal assistance was available for only one in five civil legal needs of low-income people.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that states are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who cannot afford lawyers. While there have been hopes of a similar civil right to counsel for the indigent, known as civil Gideon, some legal scholars believe the 2011 case, Turner v. Rogers, was the death knell of this movement.[1] In Turner, the Supreme Court ruled a pro se father did not have a constitutional right to automatic provision of counsel even though his most important liberty interest was at stake: Turner was at risk of imprisonment for not paying child support.[2]

Discussions about civil Gideon often center on cost. In a legal system in which mandatory indigent criminal defense is already strapped for time, money, and resources, some scholars argue provision of indigent civil counsel is infeasible.[3] Other scholars contend providing civil counsel to the indigent can reduce other social costs and is a moral and societal obligation regardless, especially when basic human needs are at stake.[4]

Last year, this debate played out in the proposal of a New York City law that would provide free legal representation to low-income tenants in Housing Court. Critics of the law pointed out that the program would cost the City an additional $150 million to $250 million annually, according to varying estimates of the program’s cost. Proponents argued that the program would produce around $143 million in savings on homeless shelters as well as other savings on welfare and education costs.

Harvard Law School’s recent announcement of its “Free the Law” project with Ravel Law[5] may soon shift this debate. The project aims to digitize the law school’s comprehensive collection of United States case law and provide free access to everyone within the next eight years. Free the Law could both make civil Gideon more feasible and improve its alternatives. Not only could civil legal aid organizations reduce operating costs, but other innovative programs could also take advantage of the newly released information.

For example, New York is working to expand the provision of non-lawyer assistance (court “navigators”) to the indigent for housing, consumer debt, and other legal matters. Greater accessibility to legal information through Free the Law could help the court navigators cite case law and be better advocates for the people they are serving.

Similarly, Maryland has developed a new mobile app to help residents access courts and state law more easily. The app could link to cases for certain areas of law on Free the Law to help citizens cite precedent for their own cases. Of course, low-income people can also access legal material from Free the Law on their own, but this might be difficult for those who are less well-versed on the law.

Ultimately, Free the Law will only be as useful as it is accessible, especially to those not trained in the legal profession, whether they are court navigators or pro se litigants. However, the project could steer our discourse about representation for low-income civil litigants away from the cost debate of civil Gideon towards more creative solutions for resolving the issue.

[1] See Benjamin Barton & Stephanos Bibas, Triaging Appointed-Counsel Funding and Pro Se Access to Justice, 160 U. PA. L. REV. 967, 970 (2012).

[2] Turner v. Rogers, 131 S. Ct. 2507, 2520 (2011).

[3] See Barton & Bibas, supra note 2, at 980-81.

[4] See John Pollock & Michael Greco, It’s Not Triage if the Patient Bleeds Out, 161 U. PA. L. REV. 40, 51 (2012).

[5] Ravel Law is a digital legal research platform that aims to enhance the legal research process by combining traditional case law research with tools for data visualization and analysis.

Written by

Alice Wang is a 1L at HLS. She is interested in access to justice, consumer protection, and education policy. Prior to law school, she received a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard College and worked at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. This summer, she will be interning at the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.

Latest comment
  • This is very interesting – I am in the process of planning a conference in October and want to talk about “civil Gideon”. The reason I am thinking about this for my conference them is two fold – the conference will be for law librarians who have a stake in Florida’s Access to Justice movement and, more interesting, the conference will be held in Panama City, Florida the same city that tried Gideon. Clarence E. Gideon was arrested in a pool hall very near from where I am located!
    Thank you for your article,
    Carol Hoots
    Secretary for FSCCLL
    Law Librarian for Bay County
    Bay County Law Library