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Legal experts testified that the current court system is failing to provide equal access to justice, during a roundtable hosted by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie on June 22.

The panelists, primarily lawyers and equal justice organization leaders, elaborated on the scope of need for legal counsel in D.C. and what steps can be taken toward “civil Gideon” during the roundtable that took place in the Moot Courtroom of the UDC David A. Clark School of Law.

The term Civil Gideon is derived from the 1963 landmark court case Gideon v. Wainwright in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that criminal defendants have a right to counsel. The civil Gideon movement argues that indigent parties should be provided legal representation in civil cases where basic human needs—such as child support, custody and housing—are at stake.

“The promise of Gideon has not been met on the criminal side by any stretch of the imagination,” said Don Saunders, vice president of Civil Legal Services and member of National Legal Aid & Defender Association. “So the last thing I would urge…is don’t just create the right; you have to create the resources to enforce that right, or it’s very hollow indeed.”

This push for a civil right to counsel comes more than 50 years after the original Gideon case, and nearly 10 years since the American Bar Association officially released their recommendation to legislators to implement some form of Civil Gideon.

Some panelists countered the concern that Civil Gideon would suffer Criminal Gideon’s reputation of scarce resources and poor representation in court; especially if that fear prevents lawmakers from enacting some form of civil right to counsel.

“Criminal Gideon didn’t arise because somebody decided, ‘well, we can now afford it,’” said panelist Steve Pershing, an attorney at Charlson Bredehoft Cohen & Brown, P.C. “[Civil Gideon] is required by our sense of what’s right … That ought to be enough on some level.”

McDuffie, who also acts as the Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, said he hopes to use the expert testimony from the roundtable to inform his decision making as a council member moving forward.