PJC In The News

Civil Right to Counsel’s Relationship to Antipoverty Advocacy: Further Reflections

From the July/August 2011 issue of the Clearinghouse Review

By Debra Gardner and John Pollock

In Poverty Warriors: A Historical Perspective on the Mission of Legal Services, Gary F. Smith’s recent reflection in Clearinghouse Review on the occasion of Sargent Shriver’s passing, Smith reminds us of the incontestable historical roots of legal services in the war on poverty.1 Then he issues an important call for each of us to examine whether we have focused too heavily on the resolution of demands for individual representation at the cost of forgetting the goal of ending poverty. Smith’s call for self-examination is one that we embrace and urge all of our legal services colleagues to take seriously as we determine how best to pursue antipoverty advocacy in this century.
As advocates for a civil right to counsel and as legal services practitioners, we would like to discuss a couple of assumptions we perceive within Smith’s article about civil right to counsel’s relationship to antipoverty work, both in the spirit of the exploration he urges and in order to foster conversation on these issues. These assumptions are that representation resulting from newly created rights to counsel could be imposed on advocates at the cost of their antipoverty work and that right-to-counsel efforts are entirely distinct from an antipoverty agenda. From our knowledge of Smith’s work, we know that he does not oppose the concept of indigent litigants having a right to counsel in cases involving basic human needs such as shelter, sustenance, safety, health, and child custody, and we understand that his recognition of access to the courts as both vital and a fundamental governmental obligation is intended to include an endorsement of the concept of the civil right to counsel. Rather, his concern is the effect that such new rights might have on the undeniably important antipoverty work of legal services programs. We believe that his concern is based on a misapprehension of the nature and direction of the civil right-to-counsel movement.2 We are grateful for this opportunity to explain why the civil right to counsel not only supports the antipoverty work of legal services but also is itself a significant antipoverty strategy.

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