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October 22, 2013

Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Public Hearing on the Civil Justice Gap on October 29 in Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer will offer remarks along with other judges and community leaders at a Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing, "Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice?" on Tuesday, October 29, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., at the Allegheny County Bar Association, 436 Seventh Avenue, Koppers Building, in the 9th floor Grant Room. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf (R-Montgomery, Bucks) will chair the hearing.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille is the Honorary Chair of a broad-based "Civil Legal Justice Coalition" created to work collaboratively on exploring strategies to improve access to justice. Representatives from the 6,400-member Allegheny County Bar Association, 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association, and 28,000-member Pennsylvania Bar Association are members of the Coalition.

Among those expected to testify at the hearing are community leaders, key stakeholders, and national experts on access to justice issues including: Pennsylvania Bar Association president Forest Myers; Dean Ken Gormley of Duquesne University School of Law; the Honorable Gary Caruso, President Judge of the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas; the Honorable Kathryn Hens-Greco, Judge of the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas; Andrew Scherer, senior fellow at the Furman Center of New York University Law School and nationally recognized expert on access to justice and poverty law issues; and Steve Grumm, Director of the Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives at the American Bar Association.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright establishing the right to counsel for the indigent in serious criminal matters. Few such Gideon-type rights have been recognized in civil matters where basic human needs such as shelter, safety, health, sustenance, and child custody are at stake. Meanwhile, the demand has surged for civil legal representation on behalf of the poor, whose ranks have swelled following one of the worst recessions in the nation's history. Those needs have been largely unmet due to a "perfect storm" of sustained, repeated and severe cuts in federal and state funding and a tight private fund-raising environment that have resulted in layoffs of legal aid staff and office closings. The gulf between client need and availability of legal help has been termed "the civil justice gap."

State and national studies estimate that a staggering 80 percent of critical legal needs of low-income people go unmet due to grossly insufficient funding and support. The purpose of the public hearing is to explore and create awareness of the current state and scope of the unmet need for civil legal services by low-income Pennsylvanians confronting legal problems involving basic human needs.

Three hearings on the issue are being held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The first hearing was held on May 7 in Harrisburg and the second hearing was held on May 23 in Philadelphia. Video and audio recordings, complete witness lists, and copies of the testimony presented at both hearings are available at the Civil Gideon Corner on the Philadelphia Bar Association's website, at

Public interest agency clients with serious legal problems impacting their basic human needs and those of their families - individuals without access to an attorney or who otherwise could not have been helped without access to an attorney - will share their personal stories of struggle at the hearing. Additionally, key stakeholders will testify regarding the legal community's ethical obligations to the civil side of justice and discuss the adverse impact of the growing civil justice gap, including the economic and social harm (direct and/or indirect) when critical legal needs are unmet as well as the economic and social benefits to the community when such needs are met.

It is anticipated that the hearing will elicit information about how the substantial number of unrepresented litigants in civil legal matters adversely impacts the quality of justice for all parties in Pennsylvania courts, increases the amount of litigation and undermines the rule of law. Additionally, the hearing is expected to explore how the unmet need for civil legal assistance is profoundly impacting vulnerable Pennsylvanians and costing taxpayers millions of dollars by increasing homelessness, failing to prevent domestic violence and increasing poverty. In these difficult economic times, current funding is inadequate to meet the critical need for civil legal assistance in the state.

"Equal access to legal representation is one of the most critical justice issues we face today," said Senator Greenleaf. "I am pleased to see the Commonwealth's legal community come together to offer their insights to the Judiciary Committee on this important matter."

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