(Michael Chamberlain/Nevada Business Coalition) – The Constitutions of both the United States and the State of Nevada proclaim that those accused of a crime have the right to have an attorney represent them. Courts have ruled that people who cannot afford to pay for an attorney themselves must be provided one paid for by the State.
The US Supreme Court recently ruled this right does not apply to civil cases. There is no Constitutional right for a party in a civil proceeding to have an attorney provided for him at the expense of others. However, Clark County does force its residents to pay for the legal representation of some people in civil disputes against others.
Earlier this week the Clark County Commission agreed to award a $3 million grant to help build a brand-new $13 million, 35,000-square foot office for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Inc. (LACSN), which performs legal services in civil cases for low-income people. The City of Las Vegas also kicked in $2.5 million for this facility.
LACSN already receives approximately $2.5 million each year from Clark County. People filing certain court documents are forced to pay additional fees, which the County directs to LACSN to help fund its activities.
Former Nevada State Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley is the Executive Director of LCASN. According to a report in the Review-Journal,
Last year, the nonprofit center helped 31,000 people, and this year that number could reach 38,000 clients who face eviction, foreclosure, lawsuits from credit card companies and other legal problems plaguing the poor, Buckley said.
All of the problems Buckley specifically mentioned are a product of unpaid debts and efforts to collect. While there are certainly instances of abuse by creditors there are also many cases of people in these situations trying to work the system.
There are also many attorneys willing to take cases in which individuals allege abuse by creditors on a contingency basis. That’s evident simply by sitting through a couple commercial breaks on virtually any local television show. Furthermore, if trial lawyers are as altruistic as they’d like us to believe, no meritorious case would go un-pursued for lack of counsel.
The State of Nevada collects money from its citizens to fund the legitimate functions of government. That money should not be used to advocate on behalf of one side in a private dispute or civil litigation between private parties.
If one side has committed fraud or another violation of the law, the government should prosecute that violation. But it should not intervene in favor of one party or another in civil actions.
It is not as though LCASN has trouble raising money from private sources. In the last few years, the corporation has been able to obtain at least $10 million from non-government sources to put toward mortgage payments and building costs in addition to the private funding for operations it receives each year. At the end of 2009 it had more than $8 million in net assets and it spent over $220,000 on fundraising in that year.
LACSN is likely to get even more money from the government in the future, as a result of two new laws signed this session. One, AB192, adds $3 to each filing fee for a Notice of Default and directs it to LACSN’s work on behalf of abused and neglected children. Our calculations estimate this will provide about $176,000 for LACSN next year.
AB259 directs $10 from existing fees from certain District Court filings to LACSN but does not mandate how it must be spent. So those funds are free to be used to advance the corporation’s efforts at social justice.
There are plenty of attorneys who will represent people who have been wronged on a contingency basis. There are plenty of attorneys who perform pro-bono legal services for those who cannot afford them. There are plenty of people who will donate money to an organization that provides services for the poor and indigent.
There is no reason the citizens of Nevada and the residents of Clark County should be forced to fund legal services in private, non-criminal matters. Neither the Nevada nor US Constitution requires it nor is intervening in disputes between private parties a legitimate function of government.
(Michael Chamberlain is Executive Director of Nevada Business Coalition.)