In the United States, people of limited means suffer a tremendous unmet need for legal services in civil proceedings. Why does the United States fall so far behind in providing that service in comparison with other western democracies?

Background on the Right to Counsel

In 1963, the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Sixth Amendment decision requiring that states provide legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants. No such right to counsel, however, has been established in civil proceedings despite the fact that for many low-income individuals, the outcome of certain civil legal proceedings can have an impact as significant, lasting, and life-altering as some criminal cases.

In the absence of a federally recognized right to counsel in civil matters, state and local authorities have been primarily responsible for protecting the rights of low-income individuals in civil proceedings where they see fit.  As a result, the provision of free legal services differs greatly from state to state, and even within a given state.

A 2017 study demonstrated that 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem that year, including health care, housing conditions, veterans’ benefits, disability access, and domestic violence matters. In 86% of those civil legal problems, low-income Americans “received inadequate or no legal help.” In addition, in over three-fourths of all civil trials in the United States, at least one litigant does not have legal representation.

Recent events have created an urgent need for an independent Immigration Court separate from the Department of Justice.  On October 17, Proskauer hosted a panel discussion in its New York office co-sponsored by Sanctuary for Families, the New York Immigration Coalition, and the Federal Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section entitled, “Lives in the Balance: Eviscerating Asylum Protection for Victims of Gender Violence.”  The speakers included The Hon. Carolyn Maloney, U.S. Representative from New York’s 12th Congressional District, the Hon. Amiena Khan, Executive Vice President, National Association of Immigration Judges, Lori Adams, Director, Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, and Lisa Koenig, a Partner at Fragomen.

The immigration lawyers on the panel provided different perspectives on Matter of A-B, a consequential decision from last summer where the Attorney General purported to overrule Immigration Court precedent, and thereby limit the availability of domestic violence as a basis for asylum.  Aside from placing the law on asylum in flux, the AG’s action raises the important question of how a cabinet-level, executive branch official could claim the authority to reverse a court’s decision.