May 08, 2020


Proposal would expand the guaranteed right to legal counsel for civil proceedings involving housing, health care, and other basic human needs

Newton, MA – As the threat of eviction, medical bankruptcy, domestic violence, and unemployment surge in the face of COVID-19, Congressman Joe Kennedy III today led 14 of his colleagues in introducing a proposal to guarantee the right to counsel in civil proceedings.

More than half a century after Gideon v. Wainwright recognized the right to counsel in criminal proceedings, Kennedy's proposal represents the most progressive expansion of legal aid in the history of the United States Congress.  His resolution stipulates that any individual facing legal action involving basic human needs -- health, safety, family, shelter, and sustenance -- be guaranteed an attorney to represent them, regardless of ability to pay.

“Long before a pandemic reached our shores, lack of access to counsel deprived countless American families of justice, leaving families without homes, veterans without benefits, sexual and domestic violence survivors without protection, and workers without wages," said Kennedy. "Now, we are confronting a virus that threatens our health and our homes, our lives and our livelihoods. In the months ahead, many will be forced to seek protection and relief in a court of law -- whether fighting eviction, battling bankruptcy, seeking wages owed, or navigating medical bills with no end in sight. Without a guaranteed right to counsel in civil cases, these individuals will be forced to stand alone."

"COVID-19 has laid bare the brutal disparities in this country, disproportionately hurting those already struggling, suffering, or oppressed. We face a steep path ahead to recover and rebuild. Rather than stitch back together broken systems, we must be bold and rewire our policies to rebuild a better, fairer country. A Civil Gideon is necessary to guarantee equal justice is available to all.”

In 2019, 94 million Americans could not afford a lawyer. Three quarters of low-income households had experienced a civil legal problem involving domestic violence, veterans’ benefits, disability access, evictions, housing conditions, and health care. Low-income Americans only receive adequate legal aid in civil courts 14% of the time. In Montgomery County, Maryland, domestic violence victims without lawyers are almost three times more likely than those with lawyers to drop their cases before obtaining final protection. In Maricopa County, Arizona, judges take, on average, less than a minute to hear eviction proceedings involving unrepresented tenants, with judgments overwhelmingly favoring landlords.

As a co-Chair and co-Founder of the Access to Legal Aid Caucus, Congressman Kennedy has been among the most vocal advocates in Washington for civil legal aid since his election. He led the House of Representatives to pass the bipartisan POWER Act in 2018, a bill that seeks to connect and galvanize the legal community to support victims and survivors of domestic assault and sexual violence with pro bono assistance. A former legal aid volunteer in Boston housing court, he has fought for increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation, and consistently rejected the Trump Administration’s attempts to gut legal aid funding. 

Kennedy’s Civil Gideon resolution is cosponsored by Representatives Susan Brooks (R-IN), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), José E. Serrano (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) and Fred Upton (R-MI). To read his resolution, please click here.

It has received the support of the following organizations: American Bar Association (ABA), National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Jane Doe Inc. (Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence), National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Shriver Center on Poverty Law, National Housing Law Project, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Boston Bar Association, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC), Lambda Legal, and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).

Supporters statements:

“The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), a membership organization of more than 250 lawyers and other professionals leading pro bono practices at more than 110 of the world's largest law firms, strongly endorse this resolution to provide counsel in civil matters,” said Steven H. Schulman, President of APBCo. “We know that even as our firms devote millions of hours to pro bono representation each year, we cannot bridge the justice gap. Too many Americans, including victims of domestic violence, families struggling to avoid eviction, and veterans seeking the benefits they earned, are left alone to face court and other civil proceedings.”

“The civil legal justice system was straining under the weight long before COVID-19, with 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor going unmet and millions threatened with eviction every year in proceedings that lasted seconds at most,” said John Pollock, Coordinator, National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. “Now, with additional millions facing eviction, denial of unemployment claims, and domestic violence, the system is facing utter collapse. Providing a right to counsel in civil cases such as these will help our society avoid outright devastation by protecting the most fundamental rights to housing, safety, and basic sustenance.” 

“Housing is a basic human right, and in this time of coronavirus, it is more clear than ever that housing is basic healthcare as well, because you can’t follow CDC guidance to stay-at-home if you don’t have a home to stay in,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “But when 90% of landlords have attorneys, and 90% of tenants don’t, it’s clear that civil right to counsel is not only a justice measure, it’s a public health measure, and one we need to take immediately lest we see a wave of homelessness that will lead to further vulnerability for this, and the next, pandemic.”

"NLADA strongly supports the concepts presented by Representative Kennedy in introducing this resolution noting the importance of a right to counsel to protect basic human needs in the United States,” said Don Saunders, Senior Vice President, Policy at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA). “Now, more than ever, the ability of people in need of health care, housing, family safety, and a basic income to effectively assert their legal rights is critical to a healthy future for our country.  Representative Kennedy has once again shown his commitment to ensuring that our civil justice system works for everyone, regardless of the amount of money they might have."

“We have an eviction crisis in the United States and this contributes to job loss, negative health outcomes and childhood deficits for the more than 2 million households affected each year,” said Shamus Roller, Executive Director, National Housing Law Project. “With stakes this high, we cannot continue to allow unlawful or unnecessary evictions to proceed without defense. Currently, the vast majority of tenants sued for eviction have no civil counsel. We applaud Representative Kennedy for his resolution to recognize a right to civil counsel, especially in this uniquely American crisis.”

“As the largest voluntary association of attorneys in the world, the American Bar Association strongly believes that federal, state, and territorial government authorities have an obligation to provide free civil legal counsel to address the basic human needs of low-income Americans, including health, safety, family, shelter, and sustenance,” said American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez. “We applaud Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) for his strong leadership in introducing a House Resolution that recognizes this fundamental right to civil legal counsel, and we urge the House to promptly pass this important measure as a key step towards ensuring that everyone has equal access to the courts, and thus justice, irrespective of economic status.”

"The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is proud to endorse Representative Joseph P. Kennedy's Resolution in favor of recognizing the right to counsel in civil proceedings, which is integral to the protection and advancement of civil rights for African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities," said Kristen Clarke, President & Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We were founded in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to mobilize the leadership of the private bar to protect civil rights and ensure equal access to justice, so access to counsel is integral to our mission. Access to counsel is particularly critical for low-income communities of color that are often without the resources necessary to safeguard fragile civil rights. This resolution takes on even greater significance in the wake of the national pandemic which has fully exposed the vulnerability of low-income communities and communities of color."

“Victims and survivors of domestic violence rely on the civil court system to protect them from abuse, whether that be by issuing protective orders, by assigning them custody of their children, or by helping them address the financial impact of the abuse they suffered,” says Ruth M. Glenn, President and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Research shows that when survivors have lawyers to help them navigate the complex civil court system, judges are more likely to grant protective orders, more likely to order respondents to relinquish contraband firearms, more likely to assign primary child custody to survivors, and more likely to take necessary steps to support survivors as they regain their economic stability. While many domestic violence shelters and programs provide civil legal representation, the need for these services far outweighs their availability, and many survivors do not have the financial resources to hire an attorney. Moreover, not all survivors seek help from a shelter but instead try to navigate the system on their own. The safety and wellbeing of survivors should never be at risk, because they cannot afford to hire lawyers, but the sad reality is that it happens everyday. This resolution is an important statement from Congress in support of safety and justice for survivors.”

“From the moment a child is placed in foster care, everything is at stake – their home, school, relationships with parents and siblings, community, and future,” said Kim Dvorchak, Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children. “Ensuring the right to counsel in the child welfare system can make all the difference navigating this complex system and – as research shows – achieving the best possible outcomes.  Due process and fundamental fairness demand nothing less.”

"In addition to being the right thing to do, guaranteeing a civil right to counsel for basic human needs will make our courts more efficient and effective at delivering justice. And the BBA and others have demonstrated that it can also save taxpayer money,” said Christine M. Netski, President of the Boston Bar Association.

"Each year in the U.S. millions of low-income people, including LGBT adults and youth, must go to court without the representation of an attorney,” said Ethan Rice, Senior Attorney in Lambda Legal’s Fair Courts Project. “Without the right to an attorney in cases that deal with issues fundamental to survival -the ability to be housed, to be free from violence, to access life-saving health care- there is no true equal access to justice. During our current crisis, with over 30 million people newly unemployed, the failure of our system to provide attorneys to those most in need will only compound the harm low-income people are facing. We must take action to guarantee the right to counsel in civil cases and to fund that right, if we are to move toward a system where all people have equal access to justice.”

“We have made significant gains over the past few decades in getting legal protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people,” saidMing Wong, National Center for Lesbian Rights Supervising Helpline Attorney. “Yet, we all know that even with a good law, having a lawyer can make the difference of being able to stay in your home when a landlord tries to kick you out because you have a same-sex partner, or of getting crucial medical care when a clinic turns you away for being transgender, or being able to get a restraining order against an abusive spouse. This bill calls for a lawyer for every person who needs one, so the promise of justice that our movement has fought so hard for can be a reality for all - not just those who can afford it.”

“The concept of ‘equal justice under law’ is a foundational principal of this nation. But these words ring hollow when millions of low-income people in America are left to navigate complicated, and often life-altering, civil legal issues without access to counsel,” said Georgia D. Katsoulomitis, Executive Director, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the surface and compounded many long-standing systemic economic, racial and social injustices and inequities.  As we move America out of this crisis, let us move America forward fairly – and that means tackling and dismantling obstacles to a just society. A civil right to counsel for low income people must be part of that critical national dialogue.”

“The right to counsel in civil legal proceedings would be transformative for countless survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as they seek to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of harm,” said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, Policy Director of Jane Doe Inc. “Access to counsel for survivors in housing, employment, public benefits, education, immigration, consumer and/or family law-related matters restores agency and resources for survivors who have lost so much due to the abuse they have endured. Jane Doe Inc. wholeheartedly endorses this Resolution to ensure right to counsel in civil legal matters.”


For Immediate Release:
May 8, 2020

Dan Black (202) 225-5931