About the Civil Right to Counsel

If you were to ask the average American, “Is there a right to counsel in civil cases?”, you would likely get one of two answers: “yes” or “no.” The “yes” answers likely come from people knowing that in criminal cases, the Supreme Court said in Gideon v. Wainwright that defendants have a right to counsel. But the history on the civil side is more complex and less positive, with the low point being the Supreme Court holding in Lassiter v. Dep’t of Soc Servs that there is not a federal right to counsel in termination of parental rights cases.

The current status of civil right to counsel is actually somewhere in between “yes” and “no”: every state provides a right to counsel in at least some types of civil cases (the most common being termination of parental rights, child welfare, mental health commitment, paternity, and civil contempt), but for the vast majority of civil cases involving basic human needs (such as shelter, sustenance, safety, health, and child custody), there is no right to counsel in most states.  

The lack of a right to civil counsel has widened the justice gap and even worsened the indigent defense crisis. In fact, the United States now lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to the right to counsel in civil cases. Yet studies have shown that having a lawyer can make the difference between keeping a home or losing it, obtaining protection from domestic violence or risking injury, having sufficient food or going hungry, or even keeping a family together. Additionally, there is growing evidence that providing counsel not only makes outcomes more accurate, but may actually help the states save money.

The website of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC) has more information about the history, status, and necessity of civil right to counsel.

NOTE: the NCCRC does not represent individuals, nor can we provide legal advice (including suggesting particular articles, briefs, or other materials to consider) or referrals to attorneys or organizations. If you are looking for legal assistance, please contact the legal aid organization in your state or your state's attorney referral program.