Ask the County Law Librarian – Court-Appointed Attorneys in Civil Cases
Q. I accidentally bumped into the back of a car at a stop sign–I barely even tapped the bumper, I took a picture and you can hardly even see the tiny dent–but now this jerk is suing me for "soft tissue neck trauma," aka whiplash. He is asking for $100,000 for pain and suffering!!! I was laid off about a year ago, before the accident, and still can’t afford car insurance, much less an attorney, even if I could find one who would take my case—I looked and looked! What are people in my situation supposed to do? I did nothing wrong, I could lose everything, and no one will help me! Why won’t the Court appoint a lawyer to defend me?
A: We’re all very familiar with the phrase "If you are unable to afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.” We hear it every time someone is arrested on TV or a movie. Generally, the court will only appoint an attorney to ensure that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment “right to counsel” is met, in situations where the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney. The Sixth Amendment provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy … the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Originally, this amendment applied only to felony cases, but a series of US Supreme Court decisions have broadened this right to cover nearly all types of criminal cases. However, this amendment is speaking specifically about criminal proceedings, not civil cases.
In California, the court cannot appoint an attorney to represent either party in most civil cases. A recent law, AB 590, does provide for the appointment of counsel in “civil matters involving critical issues affecting basic human needs.” This has been interpreted to mean cases in which shelter, nourishment, safety, or child custody are at stake. The law provides funding for projects run by local legal aid organizations, and services are limited to those who fall at least 200% below federal poverty level. It’s unlikely that your case would meet these criteria. If you are unable to hire an attorney at your own expense, you’ll have to pursue your defense of this case on your own.
If you’re a Sacramento County resident, some assistance may be available to you for this type of case from the Civil Self-Help Center. The CSHC can provide general information and basic assistance to self-represented litigants with certain case types. Common types of cases they can help with include personal injury, property damage, and breach of contract. Keep in mind, though, that their services are “self-help.” This means YOU are in charge of your case. They won’t do everything for you, like an attorney would if you hired one. If you decide to pursue this case on your own with help from the CSHC, you need to be in control of your case, you need to understand and determine your own strategy, and you need to keep on top of deadlines, court dates, and other important milestones. The Law Library has a variety of books and other materials that will help you at each step of your case. The Law Librarians are happy to help you find the books and other resources to help you with your case.
Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email firstname.lastname@example.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.