It should come as no surprise that a “Civil Gideon” pilot project is the brainchild of The Bar Association of San Francisco and two of its former Presidents, Jim Brosnahan, Morrison & Foerster, and Jim Donato, Shearman & Sterling, in collaboration with San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chui and the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco is now the nation’s first “Right to Civil Counsel City” (RTCC).
San Francisco recognizes everyone should have access to legal services in cases involving basic human needs, including housing, child custody, sustenance, safety, and health.
To set the stage for RTCC, for more than 40 years, BASF’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) conflicts panels have been recognized as the premier model for appointment of counsel in criminal, delinquency and dependency cases. LRIS’s panels serve at the side of our elected San Francisco Public Defender (PD), when the PD’s office has an ethical conflict of interest with a case. By calling upon on the extraordinary wealth of experience in the private bar to represent the poor accused of the most serious and complex crimes, as well as the parents and children in our dependency court, San Francisco’s poor, marginalized, and stigmatized populations are represented by the most highly sought private practitioners in the city despite the extraordinarily reduced rate of $66.00 to $106.00 per hour.
BASF’s spirit of volunteerism among the city’s best lawyers began long ago, not only through the creation of the Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP) in 1977, more recently known as the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC), but through the unsung heroes of our criminal and dependency courts. LRIS oversees the qualifications and scheduling of these attorneys in every courtroom, every day. In 2003, San Francisco Superior Court contracted with LRIS to oversee the administration of costs associated with these panels, creating complete transparency and accountability. An independent bar is essential to the overall health of good lawyering in San Francisco.
Despite the low hourly rate, attorneys continue to give of their time generously whenever needed. A recent example is the Community Justice Center (CJC), San Francisco’s newest collaborative court. In 2009, due to insufficient funding for the Public Defender, the entire workload fell to LRIS’s criminal conflicts panel. Individual attorneys, recognizing the city’s financial crisis, rose to the occasion, often staffing this new court at no charge to the city. As reported by CJC’s Judge Lillian Sing, “The panel attorneys have provided an incredible service to the court; the CJC may have become an expensive failure had they not stepped up. They are responsible for this court’s remarkable and well deserved success. We are so grateful for their contribution.”
So, it is not surprising that BASF is first to extend the constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases recognized 50 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright as a fundamental right to our neediest citizens in the civil courts. Once again, we hope to model and replicate respect and protection for our most vulnerable citizens throughout the state and country.
For more information, visit the LRIS website for the Indigent Defense Administration (IDA) and the Dependency Representation Program (DRP) at www.sfbar.org/lawyerreferrals/att.aspx, or contact Julie Traun, the Director of the Court Appointment Program for LRIS at 415-782-9000 or email@example.com.