This op-ed was originally published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Last month, The New York Times published an editorial calling on law schools to help fill the "justice gap" by training all law students in public advocacy. See N.Y. Times, "Addressing the Justice Gap" (Aug. 23). The "justice gap" represents America's failure to provide meaningful access to justice for low-income litigants. According to a report by the Carnegie Foundation, four-fifths of low-income people in the United States have little way to obtain the representation they need in order to succeed in our justice system. These litigants cannot afford a lawyer; without a lawyer, they stand little chance to win their cases.
While the Sixth Amendment provides indigent defendants in criminal cases with the right to appointed counsel (Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 58 (1938)), there is no such right in civil cases. Just this term, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Turner v. Rogers, 131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011), that even when a civil litigant faces incarceration for civil contempt, there is still no automatic right to counsel. So long as there are adequate procedures to govern the proceedings, civil litigants must provide for themselves.
The net result is that many people in society, often the most vulnerable among us, are unrepresented in the civil justice system. Among these individuals are immigrants, prisoners and those whose civil rights have been violated.