“Our justice system requires zealous representation,” says Leah Spero, who with her husband, Ben, generously invests in the work of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC). “I believe in our adversarial judicial system, but for it to be effective, it is assumed that both sides will be capably represented.” Leah contends that when people with no legal training are forced to defend their rights against an opponent who has counsel, the justice system can fail them.
Leah met John Pollock, the Coordinator of the NCCRC, after she accepted a pro bono case in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellant had represented herself in state court divorce proceedings, in which her financial stability was at stake. Her opponent had counsel. During the proceedings, she asked the court for appointed counsel as an accommodation for her severe cognitive disabilities. The court denied the request under a policy that refused appointment of counsel as an accommodation for a disability. The appellant filed in federal court challenging the blanket policy. The appellant argued that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the state cannot refuse to consider the appointment of counsel as an accommodation where it already provides appointed counsel in certain types of civil proceedings.
“This was one of those cases that really opens your eyes to the importance of having counsel,” Leah said.
With years of experience volunteering for an organization that helped people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty apply for government benefits, Leah was no stranger to understanding how advocates make a difference. In the court system, she says, it is especially evident, and the need for counsel is exacerbated when a person has a disability. “Counsel is imperative for a litigant with a cognitive disability attempting to navigate the complicated court system.”
Leah’s work on the Ninth Circuit case benefitted from the expertise she could access through the NCCRC. There is a lot of important right-to-counsel work happening in the states, on a variety of fronts, and the NCCRC helps to coordinate the work and share information between advocates. “If we are going to eventually succeed in bringing about large-scale change and extending the right to counsel in civil cases,” Leah says, “it helps each of us in this effort to know about the successes in other states.”
While the Ninth Circuit ultimately declined to address the merits of the case for procedural reasons, the case stimulated the advocacy community to work with the NCCRC to locate another case that would bring the right to counsel issue before the court. And after working closely with John Pollock on the case, Leah, with her husband Ben, decided to make a significant investment in the NCCRC. They surprised us with a $20,000 gift. “This is a long-term effort,” Leah told us. “We aren’t going to extend the right to counsel overnight, so we wanted to help sustain NCCRC’s ongoing work on this issue.”
Thank you, Leah and Ben!