Tens of thousands of Californians who otherwise would have been at grave risk of losing their homes, their children, their ability to pursue a living or other basic human rights and needs at least had a fighting chance to defend themselves in court because of landmark 2009 legislation that gave them access to lawyers.
In a rare feat of foresight, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act that established the pilot program required and provided funding for evaluations. So we know, for example, that providing counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction in Los Angeles County increased the likelihood of tenants responding to eviction actions, of cases being settled, and of tenants retaining their housing or finding new places to live with minimal costly disruption.
Similarly good outcomes in the few other counties involved in the pilot led the Legislature to make the program permanent in 2016. Now lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase court filing fees to expand the number of people served by the program. It’s a good move that deserves to proceed.
AB 330 by Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat representing the west San Fernando Valley, would increase filing fees for some court services, such as issuing a writ to enforce a judgment or taking an affidavit.
Raising court fees is not something to be taken lightly; those fees can add up, and there is a tendency to look to them to pay for all kinds of services without raising taxes. Yet the studies of the earlier legislation show that providing counsel benefits more than the litigants. It improves court efficiency and saves court time and money. When the parties have lawyers, fewer disputes return to court to be reworked following settlements. Court fees to pay for lawyers — in limited numbers of cases, for parties who cannot afford to pay — also, in the end, improves court for everyone.
Unlike in criminal cases, in which the Constitution guarantees a right to counsel and government pays for defense counsel from its taxpayer-funded treasury, there is no similar right to civil counsel, so there is considerable resistance to tapping taxpayer funds to pay for it.
San Francisco has its own process to provide lawyers in landlord-tenant disputes, and Los Angeles is considering a similar move, so it’s important to ensure that local and statewide programs are not redundant. But as with the original program, funds are to be shepherded by the courts through the state Judicial Council, which is to allocate funding to nonprofit organizations that help litigants based on need and other priorities. It would be a smart extension of a program that works well for California.