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Coalition Of Lawyers Pledge To Serve Low-Income Families

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Eighty percent of low-income families have no access to lawyers in civil cases -- even when their home or child custody is at stake. A coalition of lawyers is hoping to change that.

It was 1963 when the US Supreme Court ruled that indigent clients have a right to counsel in serious criminal matters. But low-income individuals involved in serious civil legal matters are left on their own, with little understand or help on how to access their rights.

"People who are facing the loss of their homes, the loss of income and sometimes the loss of children do not have the right to counsel," says Catherine Carr, executive director of Community Legal Services. "Poverty is high in this city, so is unemployment and people really, really need these services."

Carr says veterans and others on disability could easily lose income and many families lose their home in cases where a lawyer could have identified and corrected the issue with little effort.

"People are basically pushed through the system if they don't have a lawyer to help them present evidence," says Carr. She says CLS helps roughly 15,000 people every year, but many thousands more are turned away.

State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Stewart Greenleaf (R-12th Dist.) will preside over the hearing and says lack of representation in civil cases impacts everyone in the system.

"It's clogging our civil dockets and it's making the judges be judge and lawyer, which they should not have to do," says Greenleaf. "It's not their job and that's not justice."

Greenleaf says in domestic relations cases, roughly 90 percent of the litigants do not have legal representation. He says the Committee will hear from judges, including Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille, as well a grassroots organizations and low income individuals who need legal services.

"The first step is to establish the extent of this problem," says Greenleaf. "Our next step will be to find solutions and then educate the public and the legislature."

A possible solution could be include increased court filing fees.

The public hearing will take place at the Philadelphia Bar Association at 11th and Market Streets today at 9:30 am.

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