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PJC Spearheads Civil Gideon Brief in Wisconsin

The Public Justice Center recently spearheaded the first amicus brief ever filed on behalf of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.  The brief, authored by Debra Gardner of the PJC and Paul Marvy of the Northwest Justice Project, was filed on July 10, 2006, in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, in a contested custody appeal brought by John Ebbott of Legal Action of Wisconsin.  In the trial court, the mother of an adolescent girl sought a modification of custody alleging that her daughter was being abused by her stepmother.  Her claims were dismissed because she failed to navigate a number of procedural hurdles, and the father retained custody without the court ever considering the mother's allegations of abuse on the merits.  On appeal, Ebbott argues that the mother has a right to counsel at public expense because Wisconsin's constitution guarantees the right to appear through an attorney and equal protection.  Thus, the right to appear through counsel can only be guaranteed if equal protection also requires that counsel be appointed where a litigant is indigent and cannot retain counsel.  The case is Parrish v. Ronnfeldt-Mendoza, Appeal No. 2006AP000243 (Wi. App.).
Amicus briefs were filed by the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin Judicare and the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section of the Wisconsin Bar Association addressing the dire unmet needs of the poor for civil legal services and related issues.  The modest NCCRC brief, limited by rule to just 3000 words, addressed research demonstrating the extent to which having representation in contested civil matters, especially custody disputes, dramatically affects the outcome and the chances of a result that correlates with the actual merits of the case.  It tied this research to what had transpired in the case on appeal.  (For example, research shows that unrepresented parties are more than four times more likely to default and approximately ten times more likely to use procedural tools such as motions and discovery.)  It then described other recent cases on the civil right to counsel and the current state of debate nationally on this fundamental matter of social justice.
Click here to read the brief.

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