In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that people accused of serious crimes have the right to legal counsel whether or not they can afford an attorney. Despite that ruling 50 years ago, many people in Nebraska and beyond aren’t getting the legal help they need, especially those with lower incomes who are involved in civil matters.

The 1963 ruling applies to individuals who are charged with a felony or misdemeanor. Cases involving civil matters were not included in that ruling. In addition, public defenders are only appointed in certain cases based on an individual’s lack of income, and income-level qualifications can be quite stringent.

A recent New York Times article highlighted one man’s unfortunate situation. The man ran into financial difficulties as a result of the recession. He lost his job and was unable to pay child support for his four children. He did not have a lawyer and remained behind bars after he continually failed to make his payments.

He finally received help from a non-profit group that provides legal services to the poor. With the help of an attorney, the man was released from jail, found a job and began making his child support payments.

That same organization that helped the man has filed a class-action lawsuit in Georgia to give those involved in civil cases the right to an attorney.

People go to law school and spend years learning about the laws. When someone is involved in a civil dispute or has been charged with a crime, it would be impossible for them to understand the complex judicial system in a matter of days or months.

Attorneys understand court procedures and have a broad understanding of the kinds of things judges are looking for. Obtaining legal counsel can be incredibly valuable. In many instances, an attorney can prevent people from having to spend unnecessary time behind bars.

Source: The New York Times, “Right to Lawyer Can Be Empty Promise for Poor,”

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