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L.A. can implement a 'civil Gideon' by better funding the public defender

L.A. can implement a 'civil Gideon' by better funding the public defender
People wait to enter the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, the main civil courthouse of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, in May 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office is charged primarily with implementing the constitutional mandate to provide a lawyer to indigent persons charged with crime. It could also render this service to unrepresented parties in civil cases. (“Better access to legal representation is crucial — even in civil cases,” editorial, April 20)

California statutes permit the public defender to represent persons in civil cases who cannot afford a lawyer. This would occur in cases involving people determined by the public defender as being “unjustly persecuted or harassed.”

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I’m sure most people would agree that these are the litigants most in need of a lawyer. This would help ensure an even playing field in civil litigation.

But for the public defender to undertake this task, the LA. County Board of Supervisors would have to authorize the funding necessary to hire additional lawyers and staff.

We already have a way to address this need quickly, capably and seamlessly. Hopefully, the supervisors will consider implementing this approach, which would greatly enhance its stated mission to improve the quality of life for the people of Los Angeles County.

Ken Clayman, Calabasas

The writer was interim public defender of Los Angeles County in 2017.

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To the editor: The L.A. Times’ editorial board is right to urge lawmakers to make legal representation for civil litigants, including tenants in eviction cases, a priority. But simply funding a “program” to provide more tenants with attorneys would only be a temporary fix, as funding will inevitably get cut.

Guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel, instead, would create enduring change demanded by the housing crisis that is driving more and more people into homelessness.

This is fueled by an eviction crisis, in which the majority of landlords have attorneys and the vast majority of tenants don’t. Lawmakers can and should fix this imbalance of power by codifying a right to counsel for tenants in eviction cases. This would mean more families would keep their homes because eviction cases would be decided based on the merits and not who who has the most money.

Joe Donlin, Long Beach

The writer is associate director of the nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.

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