The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees every citizen, regardless of race, wealth, gender or age, the right to have a lawyer represent them in court. However, there is a distinction in law concerning criminal and civil trials. Thus this constitutional right does not protect the right to counsel in civil cases. The issue of the right to counsel in civil cases is determined by each individual state.

On Sept. 30, 2010, a petition was filed with the Wisconsin State Supreme Court in order to establish the right to counsel in civil cases. The public hearing for this issue is at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 4 in the Supreme Court Room. The moral and legal question we must answer as a society runs like this: “Do impoverished individuals have the right to free legal counsel in civil cases?”

As with all questions of rights, this is one of moral desert; that is, do they deserve to have their attorney fees paid for by the state? One side to this argument is to say that these individuals do not have any right to legal counsel based solely on the fact of their inability to pay. Furthermore, this side would argue that these persons’ “irresponsibility and lack of being a productive member of society” leads to their impoverishment, and thus the productive individuals in society should not have to pay for the legal fees of others.

This position, however, is quite handily presumptive, as it accuses all poor people of being lazy and irresponsible. An individual may be poor because they are lazy and irresponsible, but this is not the only reason and maybe not even the primary reason why people are poor. However, let us ignore this contention of the “ability to pay” for the moment and instead move on to a more fundamental question: Do all individuals have the right to a fair trial?

If it can be agreed that this is indeed a universal right, then it should not matter if somebody is poor and cannot afford an attorney. They are still owed the same right that is granted to all other citizens. The legal process is not only confusing, but also time consuming and frustrating. Expecting poor individuals – or anyone for that matter – to be able to maneuver through the court systems and legal processes without attorney aid is effectively damning them to lose their cases.

By not providing impoverished people with legal counsel, the state is fundamentally denying them the right to a fair trial. Since the state is usually the prosecutor, that same state should have the responsibility of providing that person with legal assistance so that they can adequately defend themselves in court, which is a fundamental prerequisite for the right to a fair trial.

For those who disagree, imagine you’re in this situation: You were born and raised in a lower class family that could barely make ends meet. You did well enough in school to go to college, but because your family couldn’t support you, you had to take out student loans. You graduated, but the recession hit immediately after you finished school, and you were unable to get a career in your field. You now work a minimum wage job and can barely make enough money to pay for groceries, utilities, student loans and rent. You live in government subsidized housing and you pay all your bills, but you were late in paying your last two months of rent. The government now wants to evict you from your apartment, putting you out on the street. You’re already in debt and can’t afford an attorney. What do you do?

This story is meant to simply illustrate that sometimes we get dealt a bad hand in life, and in some cases, individuals are treated unfairly by the system. The right to counsel in civil cases would protect the rights of those individuals; for if fairness is to exist somewhere, it should certainly exist in the courtroom. To deny the right to counsel for defendants would deny them their right to a fair trial and represents class discrimination.
An individual’s wealth should not be what limits their right to a fair trial. Some may contend that society should not have to pay for others’ problems. But if we as a nation acknowledge the right to counsel in criminal cases, why should civil cases that often result in people being evicted from their own homes be any less important?

What makes a civilized society truly civilized is that they strive at great lengths to ensure that those on the bottom do not fall through the cracks. The mark of a great state is legislation that seeks to ensure there is no unequal treatment, even to those with the smallest voice. Let us make another step toward progress by granting poor defendants the right to counsel, thereby further protecting the rights of all citizens to a fair trial.

Matt Jeffers ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in philosophy and economics.