Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Civil Right to Counsel on the Front Burner

Next week, August 13-14, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Committee will meet in Geneva to review US compliance with its obligations under the Race Convention (CERD).   One of the specific themes that the Committee has identified for review is the "[l]ack of the right to counsel for indigent persons belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities in civil proceedings." 

The Committee will have plenty of information to draw on.  Led by the Columbia Human Rights Institute and the Northeastern Law School Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, a number of US organizations (including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Shriver Center) have filed a shadow report with the Committee addressing this topic, entitled "Equal Access to Justice: Ensuring Meaningful Access to Counsel in Civil Cases, Including Immigration Proceedings."  The report reviews the available data and concludes that the lack of a general right to civil counsel has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, women and immigrants, leaving them without equal access to the U.S. justice system.  Among other things, the report urges increased federal support andn coordination for the expansion of civil counsel in critical cases. 

The inadequacy of the current patchwork civil counsel approach is further driven home by the new website of the  National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC).   The NCCRC is a nationwide coalition of more than 250 organizations supporting the movement for expanded rights to civil counsel in cases involving basic human needs, and its new website serves as an access point for a dazzling range of information on the civil right to counsel. 

The new website, the only repository in the country focused on information and data about the national civil right to counsel movement, includes an interactive map that tracks the status of the right to counsel in every state of the nation, provides links to primary source material and has the capacity to filter information by issue, jurisdiction, and activity.  Important for law students and other researchers, the site has a searchable bibliography with thousands of resources about civil right to counsel, including law review articles, study, reports, news stories, social media pieces, and briefs from key cases.  The website library includes audio and video related to the right to counsel as well, including oral arguments, speeches, public hearings and debates.

International perspectives, including interpretations of the CERD treaty and other UN statements on civil counsel, are discussed on a page of the website devoted to comparative and international material. 
When the CERD Committee issues its Concluding Observations shortly after the US review, it is very likely to address the ongoing civil counsel crisis in the U.S.  By presenting international civil counsel material together with a wealth of domestic data and research, the new NCCRC website sets the stage for more integrated advocacy that engages both international and domestic actors and perspectives in expanding the right to civil counsel in the U.S.

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