Criminal vs. Civil

Because of the oft-repeated “you have a right to a lawyer” messages in television and movies, many people would be surprised to learn that this right is largely limited to criminal cases as a result of the famous Gideon v. Wainwright case.  Yet there is little logic to distinguishing between criminal and civil cases: the label put on a case does not necessarily relate to how serious it is (for example, people can go to jail in a civil case, and also can lose their housing, physical safety, and life-sustaining medical benefits), and civil litigants have just as difficult a time representing themselves as criminal defendants. And there are ways in which the indigent defense crisis worsens the civil justice gap, and vice versa.

At one time, our movement was called the “civil Gideon” movement, but we now call it “civil right to counsel” because Gideon provides a right for all criminal cases and we’re only seeking a right in civil cases involving basic human needs.

The website of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC) has more about the connection between indigent defense and 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.